Scientists use genomics to design healthier forests

Natural selection creates trees less vulnerable to pests; genomics helps identify them

Scientists examining pine saplings in the AdapTree genotyping program. | genome bc
BC and Alberta plant roughly 150 million new spruce and lodgepole pine trees each year.

But some of those seedlings might have come from parents that didn’t survive the mountain pine beetle infestation or that might otherwise be less adaptable to the stresses of climate change.

In an attempt to grow a new generation of trees that can cope better with higher temperatures and pests, Genome BC and the universities of British Columbia and Alberta are working on AdapTree, a project that uses genotyping and climate-change mapping to improve forest health in a world of rapidly changing climates.

AdapTree is just one of about 19 forestry-related projects that Genome BC has been funding – to the tune of about $77 million – that uses genotyping to improve tree and forest health.

Scientists on the AdapTree project use genotyping to identify parents that are already naturally selected to stand a better chance of surviving environmental challenges like drought and pests, and climate-change mapping to identify regions where they would be best suited to grow.

“In the case of forestry and AdapTree, [they’re] developing tools to plant the right tree at the right place and at the right moment,” said Genome BC’s chief science officer, Catalina Lopez-Correa.

The new tree varieties scientists hope to grow are not genetically modified. There’s no gene splicing or modification involved.

Instead, they’re using genotyping to identify genetic traits that have already evolved in particular generations of trees through natural selection. It’s a more precise way of doing what tree breeders have been doing for decades.

“We’re on the cusp of applying the genomics research to date to traditional tree breeding and adding that as another tool for selecting trees for desired traits, like pest resistance, climate-adapted traits such a cold hardiness and tolerance to drought,” said Brian Barber, director of the tree improvement branch with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“We’re interested in tools where we can quickly look for genes that are responsible for tolerance for current and potential future pest problems, and genomics is a means of doing that fairly quickly.”

Genomics is the sequencing and analysis of an organism’s DNA. It can be used to zero in on certain genes that might be responsible for either disease vulnerability or resistance.

Just as genomics is being used to develop personalized medicine that tailors treatment to a person’s unique genetic profile, it can be used in forestry to either weed out weaker trees or promote the growth of those that are naturally more robust or productive. It’s even possible that genomics could be used to favour trees that absorb more carbon as part of the climate-change battle.

Genomics can also have commercial benefits for the forestry sector and reduce costs for governments.

For example, when wood products are brought into Canada, they must be tested for pests and pathogens. One of the projects Genome BC is funding could dramatically accelerate that testing process through the use of genomics.

“Before, you had to take months to test that shipment and to see if there were any pathogens in there,” said Lopez-Correa. “Now, with genetic technologies and genomics and with all those innovations, you can do that much faster.

“It’s not just about the health of the forest, which is huge, but the commercial implications are really straight forward.”

Another project that could reduce costs for the forestry sector is using genomics to identify and selectively breed cedar trees that have more terpenes, chemicals that produce a bitter taste and can discourage deer from browsing on young saplings.

Forestry companies spend a fortune protecting saplings with mesh or cages. Using genomics to identify trees that naturally produce higher levels of terpenes could therefore save forestry companies a lot of money.