Changing climates and climate-induced insect outbreaks are on the rise and they can lead to drought and forest destruction. This threatens both forests and the communities that depend on the forest industry. Genome BC is supporting a $5.7 million research project co-lead by the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Dr. Yousry El-Kassaby that aims to shorten the time, by about 20 years, for tree-breeding cycles thus alleviating side effects from climate conditions and insects.

The pace of change in climate and climate-induced insect outbreaks is outstripping the ability for trees to adjust to these threats. Likewise, traditional tree improvement methodologies are too slow to provide well-adapted seedlings for reforestation to ultimately achieve healthy forests for the future.

Dr. El-Kassaby, in collaboration with Drs. Barb Thomas and Nadir Erbilgin of the University of Alberta, are working to integrate rapidly emerging technologies, including genomics and mathematical models, into existing tree breeding programs to generate pest resistant and drought tolerant trees.

“My work is focused on using genomic information in mathematical models to help identify specific genotypes that are resistant to insects and are drought tolerant at an extremely early age”, says Dr. El-Kassaby, Professor, Applied Forest Genetics and Biotechnology, Faculty of Forestry, UBC. “The experiments will feed directly into the identification of naturally resilient trees and ultimately, allow us to shorten the time it takes to complete a typical tree breeding cycle of ~30-years to less than ~10-years.”

The forest industry could benefit from an improved tree breeding process through genomic tools. These tools could lead to more competitive and sustainable practices, thereby improving local outcomes and increasing export markets. Canadian communities would benefit from a growing forest industry through increased employment rates and associated local services. And, governments would have the science-based foundation to make policy decisions ensuring healthy forests for the future.

“The integration of genomics and other scientific advances could provide an economically and environmentally stable foundation for the forestry and dependent communities throughout the
Canadian landscape, says Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa, Genome BC’s Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Sector Development. “The results of this work will enhance the climate adaptive capacity of Canadian forests through technology uptake and optimization of selection for resilient trees.”

This project was funded through Genome Canada’s 2015 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition Natural Resources and the Environment: Sector Challenges – Genomic Solutions. Funders of this work include Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Genome BC, the University of Alberta, the Alberta Government and Alberta Innovates, the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta and other partners.