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Mountain pine beetles, shown here in this handout photo from an electron microscope, have infested forest land in British Columbia and Alberta. ((Canadian Press))

Researchers are working to decode the DNA of mountain pine beetles, the trees they kill and a deadly fungus to find a way of slowing the spread of the destructive bugs.

Scientists at Genome Alberta and Genome British Columbia have launched a two-year study into how the genetics of the three organisms interact.

They hope the findings will indicate where the beetle infestation will spread to next and provide clues on how to disrupt the antifreeze system that helps the insect survive the winter, said Gijs van Rooijen, one of the chief scientists on the project.

"It could inform forestry companies on which part of the forest they should cut first and hopefully provide a barrier to the beetle and thereby protect the forests on the other side of the barrier," he said.

"There may be an opportunity to alter how the genetics interact and hopefully slow down the advance of the epidemic."

Warmer winters have allowed the tiny beetles to flourish and spread.

In British Columbia, 13 million hectares of lodgepole pine forests have been ruined in a scourge that has hit the forest industry and communities that depend on it.

Beetle moving into Alberta

Over time, beetle-killed timber dries out and splits, lowering its value and making it more prone to forest fires.

Wafted by winds, the beetles have flown over the barrier of the Rocky Mountains in the past few years and have damaged more than 1.5 million trees in Alberta.

Scientists say there is now evidence the beetles are carrying the blue stain fungus that kills the trees in jack pine forests — raising the spectre of the epidemic spreading east in Saskatchewan and beyond.

"Jack pine forests extend across Canada," said van Rooijen, a molecular biologist based in Calgary. "The biggest fear is that if it moves into jack pine that the epidemic has the potential to spread across the country."

So far there are no specific plans to apply the findings from the $4-million project funded by the Alberta and B.C. governments or to genetically modify the beetles or the trees.

Computer models to aid in predictions

Joerg Bohlmann, a University of B.C. forestry scientist, said that in the short term, learning how and why the bugs spread to specific areas may be more useful.

Scientists were slow to predict the current scope of the infestation, he said.

The new information will allow researchers to come up with better computer models that will make more accurate and timely predictions in the future.

"We will be much better able to tell industry and the Canadian Forest Service and the departments that manage forests 'this is where you have to go in with a preventive cut,'" Bohlmann said from Vancouver.

"It will definitely not stop what is going on in British Columbia anymore. What we are doing here is learning from the past and being better prepared for next time."

The research findings will have broader implications as northern forests face an increased threat from the pine beetle as it adapts to live in different regions of the country.

Global warming will also mean other species of insects that haven't been seen in Canada before will be showing up in the forests.

"It's only a matter of time," he said. "I think we will see much more."