Scientists are developing made-in-Alberta solutions to keep our forests healthy

Alberta Innovates' Cornelia Kreplin (L) and Virginia Mulligan (C) with Dr. Barb Thomas (R)

Healthy forests for the future are the focus of another Alberta-based collaborative project: Resilient Forests: Climate, Pests and Policy, Genomic Applications. "We're in a time crunch in Alberta," says project leader Dr. Barb Thomas, a forestry professor at the University of Alberta. "Warming temperatures, drought and disease pressures are accelerating; the trees need to keep up. The traditional tree breeding approach takes too long to produce trees that are adapted to new conditions. We're developing a way to speed things up."

Their answer lies in an integration of existing tree breeding programs with molecular genetics. The foundation for the project is two tree improvement programs for lodgepole pine and white spruce in Alberta, which have been running for 35 years.

These programs are used to identify superior trees as the parents for the next generation of improved trees. It takes about 20-30 years to know which trees have the best fitness and resilience. The Resilient Forests project is aimed at shortening this time period as well as refining and improving the selection process.

The research team hit the ground running in 2016. The project started with about 3,200 parent trees identified in seven progeny trials; tissue samples were taken from these trees for wood quality, physiological, chemical and metabolomic testing. This information will be linked together with their DNA sequences through predictive models to help identify healthy parents for the next generation of seed orchards.

"The beauty of this project is we are delving into existing tree improvement programs and the genetics we have in our trees in Alberta," says Dr. Thomas. "There is so much variation at the individual tree level, it's fantastic. We're learning about these trees and using new genetics technology to take advantage of what's been done in the past."

The team also used seed from the Government of Alberta seed bank to grow trees that had the same mothers as the progeny trial trees in the 35-year-old field trials. In the greenhouse, these seedlings were subjected to stress from insects and drought. DNA sequencing and tissue testing are being done on these trees as well.

"Traditionally, the focus of tree improvement has been wood volume," notes Dr. Thomas. "Now we can look beyond wood volume to a suite of traits like pest and drought resistance and improved wood quality. As new characteristics are assessed, we can go back and re-mine the DNA sequence data."

All of this information will be used in mathematical models to help decide which trees should be selected to produce seed for Alberta's forests. This science-based proactive approach is expected to reduce the testing time from about 30 years to less than 10.
"This tool is so important because Alberta forests are in a race against time," says Dr. Thomas. "It's not just the trees that are under pressure, it's the communities that depend on the forest industry.

The good news is that we have an amazing opportunity here because Alberta's tree improvement programs are at the right stage of moving from first to second generation orchards, allowing us to create resilient forests for the future. You couldn't pick at better place to put this application to work."

Snapshot: Alberta's Forest Industry

The Alberta forest industry supports over 50 rural communities in Alberta through employment, taxation and other economic activity. In 2010, the industry sold $4 billion in goods and services and generated $200 million in personal and corporate taxation. About 18,000 Albertans are directly and indirectly employed in the sector, and its products are shipped globally. A total of $3.4 billion was spent by forest companies in 2010 on labour, goods and services; most of this spending was in rural Alberta.


The mountain pine beetle project outlined in part one is funded by Alberta Innovates, the Government of Alberta, fRI Research, and Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta.

The Resilient Forests project outlined in part two is funded by Alberta Innovates, Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Genome British Columbia, Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta, Weyerhaeuser Company (Grande Prairie Timberlands, Pembina Timberlands), West Fraser Mills Ltd. (Blue Ridge Lumber, Hinton Wood Products), Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, University of Alberta and University of Calgary.