Ellen Tsaprailis, June 17, 2022
Photo credit: Lindsay Ralph

Mountain Pine Beetle Genome Project to Assess Future Risk of Spread Across Canada

Lodgepole and jack pine trees are highly important to the Canadian forest-related economy and can be infested by mountain pine beetles (MPB). The tiny beetles—no bigger than a grain of rice—have caused an epidemic killing approximately 20 million hectares of lodgepole pine forests in British Columbia and Alberta.

Understanding the potential risk of MPB spread across Canada through the boreal jack pine forest, the magnitude of the risk and figuring out how to help vulnerable areas resist MPB is the task of Carleton University Biology Assistant Professor Catherine Cullingham, who is the co-lead of the $6.4-million TRIA-FoR project along with Professor Janice Cooke at the University of Alberta.

While MPB don’t always wreak havoc, climate change has caused them to increase their range threatening recreational areas and associated tourism, valuable timber assets, as well as culturally-important forests for Indigenous and other communities. Cullingham and the research team are looking at genetic variations in the trees to see whether certain genetic traits make a pine tree more or less likely to be attacked.

“We know trees that have successfully survived an attack,” says Cullingham. “We’re looking at what makes them different at their genome levels and are trying to understand if it is dependent on the tree’s environment. For example, does the same genetic variation that causes a tree to be attacked in British Columbia, result in attack if the tree is in Alberta?”

Biology Assistant Professor Catherine Cullingham is the Co-Lead of the TRIA-FoR Project

Researchers, including Biology Assistant Professor Heath MacMillan, Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science Assistant Professor Vivian Nguyen and School of Public Policy & Administration Professor Stephan Schott, will use genomics, physiology, modelling and social sciences to help reduce the impact and risks for the current and future MPB epidemics from both pine tree and MPB perspectives. They will focus on identifying genes and genetic markers that predict resistance to MPB, predict the risk of infestation spreading eastward into the boreal forest and determine how various stakeholders, policymakers and rights holders can work together to mitigate current and future epidemics and to weigh the impacts of various management options.

“On this project, we are interested in how the MPB might be adapting to a winter environment,” says Cullingham. “But we just had this really hot summer so we are wondering how the heat might affect the beetle physiology, fitness and spread and how that also affects the trees. The trees are going to be really stressed under heat conditions so are they going to be more susceptible?”

Carleton TRIA-FoR Research Team: Heath MacMillan, Jessica Duffy, Mads Andersen, Serita Fudlosid, Rhiannon Peery, Barry Flinn, Valerie Berseth, Jenna Hutchen, Catherine Cullingham, Stephan Schott, Vivian Nguyen and Christopher Orr

Giving stakeholders such as the Canadian Forest Service, provincial forestry agencies and forestry companies the data to determine whether specific trees are more resilient to the MPB through genetic information is a key goal of this project. A long-term objective is to develop more resilient trees pinpointing genetic stock that forestry companies can focus on planting instead of their usual arsenal.

British Columbia has been the mainstay of where MPB are found and the experience there gives the project its baseline data. The MPB have now migrated across the Rocky Mountains and are in Alberta where the concern is if and how fast they will head eastward across the country. Climate change and forest management practices have allowed MPB to spread from its original occurrence in central British Columbia to new regions in Alberta, establishing in a new host—the jack pine. Jack pine is a boreal forest species that extends to the Atlantic Ocean, raising the potential of continued eastward spread of MPB across Canada.

“If we don’t sample beetles in BC then we don’t have a baseline for how they’ve changed in Alberta. And for the trees, I’m looking all the way into Ontario where we have red and white pine trees,” says Cullingham. “We are really looking forward.”

Lodgepole Pine Trees (Photo credit: Colleen Fortier, University of Alberta)

TRIA-FoR Project
Cash funding for the four-year Transformative Risk Assessment and Forest Resilience (TRIA-FoR) project is being provided by grants from Genome Canada, the Government of Alberta through Genome Alberta, and the Ontario Research Fund – Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities through Ontario Genomics. Additional cash and/or in-kind support is being provided by Carleton University; the University of Alberta; Western University; the University of British Columbia; Natural Resources Canada – Canadian Wood Fibre Centre; Natural Resources Canada – Great Lakes Forestry Centre; Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development; the Forest Improvement and Research Management Branch – BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development; the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment; the Forestry Branch – Manitoba Ministry of Natural Resources and Northern Development; the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Government of Northwest Territories; the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry; fRI Research; Canfor; and West Fraser.

***Mountain Pine Beetle Image by Antonia Musso, University of Alberta***

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