Stacking the Odds in Favour of our Forests: Using Genomics Tools Against Forest Pests

Research team member checking a Mountain Pine Beetle trap in the forest.
Researcher checking a Mountain Pine Beetle trap in the Slave Lake region. Photo credit: Antonia Musso

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Albertans watched nervously as their neighbours to the west battled the mountain pine beetles that were ravaging their forests. As swaths of dried out, red pine trees crept towards Alberta’s borders, forest managers and the Government of Alberta knew they had to find new and more effective ways to curb the rapidly growing populations of these wood-boring insects – and that to do this, it was going to take a team effort. So in 2006, they invited a promising new player to the roster: the research group now known as TRIA-FoR (Transformative Risk Assessment and Forest Resilience Using Genomic Tools for the Mountain Pine Beetle). Their research would help fill knowledge gaps in the province’s defense strategy against current and future mountain pine beetle epidemics.

Forest managers estimate that in the last two decades, over 20 million hectares of pine trees in Alberta and British Columbia have been destroyed by mountain pine beetles. During this time, TRIA-FoR has leveraged its expertise in genomics to make significant contributions to the management ‘playbook’ for tackling these devastating forest insect pests. Genomics, which is the study of an organism’s genetic material and how different factors impact the information content and activity of those genes, can tell us a lot about what’s going on in the mountain pine beetle playing field. It can also shed light on what offensive and defensive strategies will give us our best winning chance.

For example, TRIA-FoR used their innovative genomics tools to show mountain pine beetles had moved into pure jack pine stands, when previously it was believed they only infiltrated lodgepole or mixed pine stands. This signaled to managers that stands all across Canada’s boreal forest were potentially at risk of infestation, escalating the threat from a regional to a national level. Extensive research conducted by TRIA-FoR also showed how mountain pine beetle populations differ in the northern part of the region affected by the epidemic versus the southern part.

Janice Cooke, TRIA-FoR Co-Lead and Professor of Biology at the University of Alberta, says this initial genomics work led to new research opportunities and questions for their team to explore, like why some trees survive mountain pine beetle attacks while others don’t. Their current project, funded by Genome Canada for $6.4M, is looking at the role of genetics in a tree’s resilience to mountain pine beetles, and whether putting more genetically resilient trees on the landscape, especially in urban forestry scenarios, can be an effective mountain pine beetle population control measure.

“Some of these surviving trees share a genetic fingerprint,” said Cooke. “We want to see how we can apply genomics to identify this fingerprint in other populations of trees potentially, and if we can use this information to reforest areas with trees that are not the primary choice of mountain pine beetles – but first we need to understand why these trees survive.” The research team is also carrying out research into factors that will influence if and how mountain pine beetle will spread further into the boreal forests, in this and future epidemics, and on community resilience in the face of natural disturbances like mountain pine beetle.

The ground-breaking work done by the researchers at TRIA-FoR wouldn’t be possible without the involvement of several other teammates.

“Over the years we’ve developed a relationship of trust with our government partners,” said Cooke. “We continuously learn from the decision makers and practitioners in the government agencies we work with, and often share knowledge in real-time. The representatives from Alberta’s forest industry that we work with are passionate about the forests, and invested in seeing us succeed. They give a lot of their time to help us understand their work and the mandate from the province that guides how they manage the forests.”

Even though mountain pine beetle populations have declined in the past few years, there are still some critical questions to explore. By working as a team and establishing quality relationships with their government and industry partners, TRIA-FoR’s research has the potential to be put into play more effectively, and positions Alberta and the rest of Canada in a stronger position against the next mountain pine beetle epidemic.

“The best time to prepare for an insect outbreak is at the end of the last one,” said Cooke.

You can learn more about TRIA-FoR’s current project on the TRIA-FoR website.

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