Environment

Genetics affecting trees

  • Feb 06, 2014
  • 334 words
  • 2 minutes
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The world is warming up. And that could mean big problems for Canada’s forests.

Dr. Sally Aitken is leading a team at the University of British Columbia that is trying to get forest management practices up to speed on climate change. But during a talk at last week’s Bacon and Eggheads breakfast in Ottawa, she warned policy makers that some of Canada’s trees are becoming increasingly ill adapted to their climate, which could have significant consequences in the future.

“It’s like packing for Alaska and ending up in California,” Aitken said.

Every tree is different. Conifers have about 30,000 genes, with dozens of versions for each gene. This genetic diversity means there’s bound to be a well-matched tree for any particular place in Canada’s vast coniferous forests — just not necessarily near where it needs to grow.

As trees reproduce, grow and spread slowly, experts estimate that as conditions warm, trees can spread north up to 200 metres per year. But temperature and precipitation patterns are shifting much faster than that. Nature is too slow to get the right combinations of genes into the right areas.

If governments update their best practices for replanting to incorporate the research team’s findings, it may be possible for forestry companies to plant trees that are better adapted to their environment so that Canadian forests can thrive. But without any change, forests will become increasingly mismatched for their environment, which could cause a drop of up to 35 per cent in timber production this century, with costs approaching $1 billion.

So far, Aitken and her team have sequenced the genes from 281 lodgepole pine and 254 white spruce populations from British Columbia’s Okanagan region to Alberta’s Peace River country. They are looking for the right combination of genes for each environment.

As results come in, the group will publish the genetic sequences online for other researchers to use. “We hope scientists working on tree diseases and other forestry problems will find our data useful,” Aitken said.

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