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Blazing a trail in ‘internally connected’ forests

Earlier in the last month of 2016, there came an announcement of a newly funded project having to do with saving forests. The project is called Resilient Forests: Climate, Pests, & Policy - Genomics Applications or “RES-FOR” in the time-honored traditions of government abbreviations and social media shorthand.

If you want to hear more about this project, then check out this blog post complete with a video in which project lead Barb Thomas gives an excellent overview. But, if you want to jump straight to the cool factor in this project, then keep reading.

First, while there’s lots of cool science going into this project and even cooler stuff to eventually come out of it, it’s just got off the ground so don’t go thinking the researchers are soaring yet.

Indeed, project co-lead Nadir Erbilgin tells me that the researchers will likely have some preliminary results by the end of 2017 but it’ll be about four years before they get the biggest, juiciest insights.

That’s not a long time in tree years, even though it feels like an eternity in dog or Internet years. Hold on to your hat; we’ll get there soon enough.

“Science takes time to do correctly but the results are reliable then,” he said. Oh yeah, the old ‘haste makes waste’ defense. Yeah, right! Seriously. He’s absolutely right.

So, hold on, what’s this post going on about if the researchers are just getting started, the project announcement has already been made, and everyone agrees we’re not going to learn much for several tree years?

The news in this post is about the beginning of the project rather than the end.

It’s the place where science disciplines overlap and interlock. Where researchers forge a path to new understandings based on a more holistic approach to solving problems.

“This is the blending of genomics with other sciences on the operational level to address the pressing issues associated with climate change in a very practical manner,” said Thomas.

And where’s the excitement in that?

“We want to know lots of things like what chemicals are inside of trees and what do the trees use them for… the chemical ecology,” explained Erbilgin.

Wait. What is chemical ecology? The short definition is it’s the study of chemicals that living organisms use to interact. An example in humans would be the role of pheromones in romantic attractions. Yes, you were both under the influence of chemicals at the time. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?!

Anyway, an example in plants would be how one plant interacts with other plants via the production and release of certain molecules – or the production and release of toxins to go to war with invading insects.

And no, those chemical processes are not identical between one individual plant and another of the same type.

“Just like all humans are not the same, so are all plants not the same,” said Erbilgin.

What we’re looking at here is a new understanding that forests are connected systems. Think of it like the new evolving connected cars where cars interact wirelessly with other cars, the highway, and surrounding structures so that driving can become automated.

Driverless cars are not possible – or at least not safe or useful– without constant interaction via signaling between all objects involved.

Forests are similarly connected in that there are chemical interactions between the many organisms contained within. Some of that interaction is benign and friendly and some of it is hostile and toxic. That means there is some form of analytics at work in plants to decide when it’s appropriate to do one or the other.

In other words, the forest organisms, including all the plants, understand these signals perfectly well.

“We want to learn how bugs, drought, chemistry, genomics, and other factors combined affect what is happening now and what could happen later on,” said Erbilgin.

It could be that through the interdisciplinary exploration of connected forests that we’ll learn much more than just how to save “one of Canada’s major economic engines” and the many oxygen-producing forests around the world.

Indeed, the researchers are counting on there being many positive outcomes from this research.

“Trillions of gigabytes of data will be collected during this project,” said Erbilgin. Both Thomas and Erbilgin said that data will always be available for other researchers working on other research projects to mine. The data will be a public resource.

“There will be an interactive website making the data available to anyone to use and to develop new metrics,” said Thomas.

Thomas also explained that she comes from “the applied side with an industry background, not the genomic molecular side.” In a nutshell, that means Thomas is experienced in finding practical applications and bankable return on investments in genomic work.

Her practical approach to problem-solving bodes well for Canadians and for people everywhere struggling to keep their forests alive despite the threats borne of climate change.

But who knows? There may be some findings worthy of science fiction fame too. After all, these connected forests are full of daily communications between plants and other organisms. Might we learn how to communicate with plants or communicate with each other through plants too?

We’ll have to wait and see what actually comes from this project. Meanwhile, we can all agree that it’s off to a very cool start.

Blazing a trail in ‘internally connected’ forests

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