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

RCMP investigating after tires slashed in Port Alberni neighbourhood

RCMP are looking for anyone with information or video surveillance

Port Alberni writer featured at Alberni Valley Words on Fire

Vicki Drybrough’s poetry and short stories have been published in anthologies and literary journals

Tour de Rock alumni ride through Port Alberni

Event was scaled down this year in response to COVID-19

Third brewery on the way for Port Alberni

Alberni Brewing Company hopes to open in early 2021

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3

World Farm Animals Day, Drink Beer Day and Virus Appreciation Day are all coming up this week

Weekend sees 267 cases, 3 deaths in B.C.; Dr. Henry says events leading to COVID spread

There are currently 1,302 active cases in B.C., while 3,372 people are under public health monitoring

Lightning strike: Tampa Bay blanks Dallas 2-0 to win Stanley Cup

Hedman wins Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP

Shawnigan Lake’s Kubica gets 25 to life for murder in California

Former Shawnigan Lake man convicted of killing woman in 1990

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Liberals seek to fast track new COVID-19 aid bill after CERB expires

Government secured NDP support for legislation by hiking amount of benefits by $100 to $500 per week

B.C. VOTES 2020: Echoes of HST in B.C. debate over sales tax

Cannabis, tobacco, luxury cars still taxed in B.C. Liberal plan

She warned her son about toxic drugs, then he was dead

Donna Bridgman’s son died at the age of 38 in Vancouver

Duration of Tour de Rock stop in Chemainus much shorter than usual

Four alumni riders don’t get to come for breakfast in COVID year

Most Read