lodgepole pines by Terence Mendoza

Photo © Terence Mendoza \ Fotolia

THE PARTNERSHIP GROUP for Science and Engineering, composed of members of more than 25 organizations, has been conducting breakfast lectures for parliamentarians since 1998. They call it the Bacon and Eggheads series and they want it to showcase topical Canadian research in a non-partisan forum that allows scientists to present important findings to influential politicians. 

At the end of January, Sally Aitken of University of British Columbia presented her research in a talk entitled “Will my forest look good in these genes?” Aitken is a professor of Forest Genetics and NSERC Industrial Research Chair. Her research informs government and industry on forest management policies and genetic conservation strategies in the face of climate change. 

In “Evolutionary and plastic responses to climate change in terrestrial plant populations,” published this year in Evolutionary Applications, Aitken and her co-authors note considerable alteration in the current flowering times of dozens of plant species in Concord, Massachusetts, compared to the records kept by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. During the last 150 years or so, the average temperature in this location increased by 2.4°C and flowering times advanced by an average of seven days. 

"Climate change is resulting in a profound mismatch between tree populations and the environments they inhabit"
– Sally Aitken

It’s essential to manage and conserve trees because of their importance – both to the forestry industry and for sequestering carbon. However, climate change is occurring too rapidly for forests to adapt through natural selection or migration. “Climate change is resulting in a profound mismatch between tree populations and the environments they inhabit,” according to Aitken. 

The 250-year-old practice of forestry and tree breeding in North America and Europe has provided a wealth of information on tree genetics from so-called provenance trials. Provenance means “origin,” and refers to a population of trees from a specific location. Seeds from these trees are planted in other locations to see how the trees adapt to different climate conditions. Aitken uses this body of knowledge to create her “landscape genomics” approach to forest management. Landscape genomics identifies the genetic clues that show trees are adapting to changing environments and links these changes with specific areas in the landscape. For instance, trees can show alterations in the timing of growth and reproduction, or in heat and drought tolerance, depending on their local conditions. Combining genetic information with localized climate data like this can help to explain how climate change is influencing forests and how trees are adapting. 

Foresters are using this new approach in conjunction with traditional studies to understand how trees have adapted in the past to changes in temperature and moisture, and to predict future adaptations. Aitken is currently working on a large-scale project called AdapTree, funded by Genome Canada, Genome BC, the Forest Genetics Council of BC and Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. AdapTree aims to help with the problem of tree populations that are no longer able to keep up with changing local climates. Using genomics and state-of-the-art climate-mapping technologies, scientists will match genetically appropriate seeds to reforestation sites to improve forest conditions into the future. 

Bacon and Eggheads, and similar programs, are helping government make funding decisions on research important to all Canadians. 

Janet Kimantas is associate editor at A\J with degrees in studio art and environmental studies. She is currently pursuing an MES at UWaterloo. She splits her spare time between walking in the forest and painting Renaissance-inspired portraits of birds.

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