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Scientists tap trees’ evolutionary databanks to discover environment adaptation strategies


Amy Brunner holding Petri dishes. Amy Brunner is working to identify gene sequences from Populus trichocarpa, commonly known as black cottonwood.

Feb. 15, 2016 – Researchers have been using the gene function of a small, simple, model plant to learn about and sequence hundreds of tree genomes for decades. However, a research team recently developed a new strategy to learn about trees’ genetics. Their study, published in Nature Genetics, identified gene sequences from Populus trichocarpa, commonly knows as black cottonwood.

To determine how the trees adapt to different climates, cuttings from trees in many wild populations were grown in research plots in four distinct environments from California to British Columbia. Associate Professor Amy Brunner explained that by watching the trees’ traits and genetic code change simultaneously, scientists can easily deduce which genetic variations are important to adaptation. The real work is finding out why. “The challenge is that we have identified all these genes but don’t yet have a good idea of their function,” she said.

This study identified two related genes in trees that were altered based on environmental conditions — the FT1 gene is known to regulate the transition to flowering and the FT2 is important for controlling fall growth cessation and bud set. “Trees must time entry and exit from winter dormancy appropriately for their climate to maximize growth but avoid damage by fall and spring frosts, so these two genes may have a crucial role in the timing of both dormancy transitions,” Brunner said, adding that her research can be a bridge between genome-wide studies of the ways trees in different environments adapt and the understanding of the role of specific genes in a process.

Read the full press release.

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