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New genes for old forests as Canada warms

Future trees will still look like today's trees as the climate warms, but they're going to need a whole new set of genes.

"In my opinion the single biggest threat to Canada's forests is climate change," says forestry professor Sally Aitken.

"And there are things that we can change ... to make that forest more resilient in the face of climate change."

She's a forest geneticist at the University of British Columbia. This week she'll tell scientists, MPs and senators in Ottawa about the unseen differences among trees of the same species.

Genetically, a pine tree in Ottawa is different from one in Toronto or one in Sudbury. Each has evolved to suit its local climate.

That means there are already trees suited to the warmer climate Canada is likely to have in the near future, Aitken says, "but those genes are in the wrong places." They're in trees hundreds of kilometers south of us.

"So my research is focused on the best way to better match trees with new and future climates, to assist the movement of that genetic material through reforestation."

Foresters have always chosen local seeds because they survive better, she said. "Local is no longer your best bet."

The trouble is that it's unclear which tree will be best adapted to a given place. Will trees from Ohio suit a future Ottawa? Or trees from Kentucky? No one knows.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014