Researchers from UBC have helped discover a pattern of genes in two coniferous trees that help them to rapidly adapt to changing climates.

Sally Aitken, professor of Forest and Conservation Sciences at UBC, co-authored the study that found the same set of 47 genes in the lodgepole pine and interior spruce that allowed each species to adapt to colder, or warmer, climates.

The goal of the team’s research was to understand the genetic differences in trees that are better adapted to certain temperatures and then put that information to work to improve reforestation efforts.

“Historically, the trees were already matched with their climate, but with climate change they’ve become mismatched,” explained Aitken.

“At a fundamental level, we started this research to better understand how to rematch the right trees with the right climates.”

Hundreds of possibilities

With the number of genes responsible for adaptation to climate in the hundreds, Aitken says they had thought there would be many ways these trees would adapt to cold or warm temperatures.

But the discovery revealed considerable overlap in the genes used, which Aitken says will make it much easier to characterize in other species of trees for climate adaptation because they’ll be likely to have many of the same genes involved.

Starting with the spruce and pine seeds from varying climates, the researchers planted the seeds in controlled environments and observed the speed and amount of growth as well as their resilience to cold to discover the genetic differences.

“Climate’s complicated, it’s not just temperature or just precipitation. So this genetic approach helps us to identify the most important factors of climate that the trees are adapted to so that we can manage around those aspects of climate,” said Aitken.

“The climate is a moving target; we have to think about whether we’re matching [the seeds] when they’re little seedlings or bigger saplings or a mature tree because the climate will be different at each of those points.”

Looking forward, Aitken sees the next step in this line of research following the process of natural selection.

“The other thing we can do with this work is then look at how much variation there is in populations for these genes and ask the question how quickly will these populations be able to adapt on their own to new conditions.”

That’ll be another step in terms of understanding how unmanaged or current forests will respond.”

Aitken’s co-authors include researchers from UBC, University of Calgary, Monash University, Northeastern University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of Alberta.