Monash researchers help discover genetic secret for climate change defence in trees

Conifer

Major new international research involving Monash University has found that despite 140 million years of independent evolution, two distinct types of coniferous trees use the same small set of 47 genes (of 23,000) to rapidly adapt to varying climates.

Co-author and Monash University Scientist Dr Kay Hodgins said the finding was astonishing and held implications for sustainability, industry, and research.

“Despite the fact these trees have evolved as separate species for roughly as long as humans and kangaroos, these two distantly-related types of trees use variation in the same genes to deal with the different climates they both inhabit.

“Understanding how trees adapt to climate will help us make better decisions about where trees should be planted,” Dr Hodgins said.

“Trees are becoming mismatched to their local climates and we need to develop approaches to help our forests adapt to these changing conditions,” she said.

Published in the journal Science, the research has major significance for trees, the ongoing human consumption of wood and pulp products such as paper and fibre, as well as how nations address climate change. Monash University is the only Australian institution involved in the study.

Senior author, Forestry Professor Sally Aitken from the University of British Columbia, said that faced with drought or cold, trees decide to turn thousands of genes on or off to deal with changes in temperature and moisture. This suggests there may be multiple ways trees in a region can adapt to local climate.

“But after sequencing the DNA of 23,000 specific genes from hundreds of pine and spruce trees in B.C. and Alberta, our research found that the two tree species used DNA variation in the same 47 genes to adapt to low or high temperatures,” Professor Aitken said.

Read the full study.

Other study authors include researchers from UBC, University of Calgary, Northeastern University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of Alberta.  The research is part of the AdapTree Project, funded by Genome Canada, Genome BC, Genome Alberta, Alberta Innovates BioSolutions, the Forest Genetics Council of British Columbia, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Virginia Tech, UBC, the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program, and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.