Big, old B.C. trees produce mutations over time that could improve success: UBC

Prof. Sally Aitken, associate dean in the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C.

Researchers collected DNA from the tops of some of Canada’s tallest trees to search for mutations that could provide evidence of how the ancient forest giants evolve to survive.

It involved ascending 20 Sitka spruce trees on Vancouver Island, averaging 80 metres tall and ranging in age from 220 years to 500 years old, to reveal that the old-growth trees developed mutations to their genetic code as they grow and age.

Prof. Sally Aitken, associate dean in the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C., said they wanted to know whether mutations that occur during growth, as opposed to those during reproduction, could add up to substantial changes for the trees.

“To do that we went to some of the tallest trees in B.C.,” she said of their research in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

READ MORE: Scientists uncover new DNA details about ancient trees on Vancouver Island

“We sampled the bottom of the trees and the tops of the trees and looked for places where the DNA code was different between the bottom and the top.”

The results of the research appeared in the June edition of Evolution Letters, an open access, peer reviewed journal that publishes new research in evolutionary biology.

Aitken said three professional tree climbers were hired to scale the spruce trees, while the researchers stayed on the ground collecting and analyzing the samples.

She said the towering trees appear largely unchanged over hundreds of years of growth, but peel back bark and examine needles and the complexity begins to reveal itself.

Trees have long lifespans and their evolution can’t be studied as quickly as animals, but tracking what’s called somatic mutation rates can offer evidence of their ability to thrive and survive, she said.

“They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years,” Aitken said. “They’re very successful ecologically and evolutionarily.”

The research is the first evidence of the large amount of genetic variation that can accumulate in the trees over centuries, she said.

Scientists have long known about mutation growth over time, but little about its frequency and contribution to genetic variation, Aitken added.

“One big, old tree could have 100,000 mutations or in that order of magnitude across the whole tree.”

Aitken said it doesn’t mean the trees could immediately adapt to different conditions, but it is a mechanism for them to produce genetic diversity over time.

Their research may provide insights into what part the mutations could play in how trees often adapt to local climates or develop responses to bugs and pests, she said.

“They are very successful and this is one of the ways that may have contributed to their long-term success over eons,” Aitken said. ”What we can see here is that within an individual tree, a very large, old tree, we see diversity being generated that can then potentially contribute to evolution.”

Aitken said wood is a necessary product and used worldwide, but the old-growth forests deserve more protection.

“I think we should be conserving a lot of old growth, and not because of the genetic diversity in these trees per se, but because of the very important functions that these trees serve,” she said.

“The ecological functions. The carbon sequestration. The habitat they produce, and they’re wonderful places.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rio Tinto responds to U.S. aluminum import tariffs

The tariffs were imposed by President Donald Trump Aug. 6

Brucejack mine fatality identified

Patrick Critch was from Newfoundland

SD54 and SD91 figuring out a back to school plan

B.C. government hopes to get students back to in-person classes

Granisle receives $4.3 million funding for Wastewater Treatment plant upgrade

The village will finally get to upgrade the 49 years old plant

Provincial grant boosted District projects

The 2019 annual report released

QUIZ: Do you know the truth?

In what has been described as a post-truth era, how much do you know about truth and lies?

NHL playoffs: Canucks to meet St. Louis Blues in Round 1

Vancouver takes on defending champs beginning Wednesday

Simon Cowell breaks his back falling from electric bike

Incident happened at his home in California

VIDEO: Internet famous Yukon-based bhangra dancer explores Vancouver Island

Gurdeep Pandher spreads joy through dance, forms cross-cultural connections amid pandemic

Unofficial holidays: the weird and wonderful things people celebrate around the world

On any given day of the year, there are several strange, silly or serious holidays to observe

Moving on: Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT as Canucks oust Wild

Vancouver beats Minnesota 5-4 to move into first round of NHL playoffs

Gene editing debate takes root with organic broccoli, new UBC research shows

Broccoli is one of the best-known vegetables with origins in this scientific haze

VIDEO: U.S. Air Force pilot does fly-by for B.C. son amid COVID border separation

Sky-high father-son visit plays out over White Rock Pier

3 Vancouver police officers test positive for COVID after responding to large party

Union president says other officers are self-isolating due to possible exposure

Most Read