N.S. project uses genomes as blueprint for more resilient, valuable trees
Using new selection tools, time can be cut 'by decades down to a few years'
A Nova Scotia project working to develop the most resilient forests is rooting their methods in the family tree.
Genome Atlantic, a non-profit organization, recently received $315,500 over four years to work with the Atlantic Tree Improvement Council to plant faster-growing trees that are more resistant to disease.
The new funding comes out of the Forestry Innovation Transition Trust, which also announced two other projects alongside Genome Atlantic earlier this month.
Genomics is the study of an organism's genome, which is made up of DNA and the "complete set of genetic instructions" that allows it to grow and develop, Richard Donald of Genome Atlantic told CBC's Information Morning on Tuesday.
Donald said Genome Atlantic is looking to select and replicate various ideal tree genes, but not tweak them to create something new, which would be genetic modification.
The process begins with measuring different trees and seeds in various locations, Donald said, and then looking at their genomes for favourable properties they want to select out for an improved next generation.
That way, models can be built to help predict how a new tree will perform, Donald said.
The group is looking for all sorts of target traits, such as faster growth, more resiliency to pests, or the temperature extremes that are expected in a changing climate.
With conventional breeding programs in forestry or agriculture, Donald said two promising parents are selected and crossed together. Researchers then follow their offspring to see how they perform, and whether they have inherited the desirable traits.
But Donald said the problem with this tree-breeding method is it can take up to 30 years to see whether the next generation has inherited those specific traits.
Using new genomic-selection tools, Donald said the time can be cut "by decades down to a few years." Researchers can look at the genetic makeup of the seed, and only plant it if it has the genetic markers researchers want.
By examining the genome of the offspring and the parent trees, Donald said predictions about traits are possible very, very early in a tree's growth.
Project fits into Lahey report
It will likely be several years before Nova Scotians could start seeing plantations of these high-production trees, Donald said.
Genome Atlantic doesn't handle the planting themselves, Donald said, but promotes and manages genomic research in the region. It has helped different partners form the AtlanTIC group, develop funding proposals, and manage projects.
AtlanTIC is a public-private industry group made up of Northern Pulp, Port Hawkesbury Paper, Irving and four forestry departments across the Atlantic area.
Donald said the tree genome project aligns with the Lahey report, which suggests setting areas of the province aside for high-production forestry and leaving room for biodiversity.
Released 2½ years ago, the report by Bill Lahey, the president of University of King's College, includes 45 recommendations that ultimately call for a more sustainable approach to managing forests, and steps that would lead to a reduction in clear cutting.
Iain Rankin, a former minister of lands and forestry who was elected Liberal leader earlier this month, has promised to put the report into action this year. He's expected to be sworn in as premier next week.
With files from CBC's Information Morning