How U of A researchers are helping Alberta’s forestry sector innovate to improve

A team of scientists is looking into new ways to develop trees that grow faster, resist insects and disease, and are resilient in a changing climate.

Raiany Dias de Andrade Silva

PhD student Raiany Dias de Andrade Silva uses DNA analysis to help understand how aspen trees will respond to climate change—research that will inform decisions aimed at maintaining aspen forests in Alberta. (Photo: Supplied)

As one of Alberta’s leading sectors, forestry relies on healthy trees, but faced with challenges including climate change and environmental sustainability, there's a need for constant improvement.

Creating ways to develop fast-growing, well-adapted trees in the province is a task that researcher Barb Thomas and her team of scientists in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences (ALES) are taking on in various ways.

Barb Thomas
Barb Thomas leads a team of U of A scientists whose research is aimed at helping government and industry improve forest management programs to meet the challenges of environmental sustainability and climate change. (Photo: Supplied)

Supported by funding from a Forest Sector Industrial Research Chair in Tree Improvement established by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Thomas and her team are filling a research niche for tree improvement programs run by industry and government.

The research program, which Thomas established in 2014, is working to fill knowledge gaps in softwood and hardwood tree improvement programs, providing guidance, for example, to geneticists and orchard managers on seed production, as well as quality control issues such as pollen contamination, while ensuring genetic diversity requirements are being met.

“There are multiple benefits to investing in tree improvement,” said Thomas. “It allows us to select trees for genetic traits like wood quality and resistance to drought and disease brought on by pressures from climate change.”

The research also helps address increasing pressures on the landbase used to grow trees, she added. Resource development, highways and protection for at-risk species like caribou all limit the amount of land available for forestry operations.

“Our research is trying to maximize the growing potential on a given piece of land, so that enough wood is being grown on a shrinking landbase to sustain forest company operations and their local communities.”

“The research all contributes to helping industry and government make sound economic and policy decisions,” Thomas added. 

Over the past six years, research from her lab has introduced new ideas into the management of seed orchards and tree improvement programs in Alberta by showcasing the utility of genomics, expanding the ability to select on more than just volume and infusing millions of research dollars through the Resilient Forests Genome Canada project Thomas leads.

The lab’s work provides key research that forestry companies need to inform their long-term plans for best managing their land bases, said Shane Sadoway, operations superintendent for West Fraser Mills Ltd.

“Anytime we can do a better job of reforestation after harvesting, it benefits our industry directly because we are promoting the long-term sustainability of the forest resource. When we have key questions about how to produce more and better seed for reforestation that promotes forest growth as well as resiliency to climate, insects and disease, it’s invaluable to have a lab at the U of A to provide the science that helps answer those questions,” he said.

Training the next generation of forest scientists

The lab is also training much-needed professionals who can carry the science of tree improvement forward, Sadoway noted.

“It’s a very high level of science, and Barb’s lab has a host of young researchers doing real-world projects. When they finish their programs they have the skill sets and the potential to help meet an industry priority to create some highly qualified tree improvement practitioners. Barb and her students are always keen to get out in the field with us, and that relationship has worked extremely well.” 

Eight projects in the lab are now being led by graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to tackle challenges in tree species that are key to forestry, including how to boost low seed yields in lodgepole pine, use elite breeding to maximize growth of white spruce and identify parent trees that can be bred to produce more drought-resistant seedlings for reforestation.

New research includes DNA “fingerprinting”—cutting-edge technology that will help Alberta’s forestry companies compete by creating “the best of the best” seeds, said ALES research associate Esteban Galeano, who is working to increase genetic gain in white spruce and lodgepole pine breeding programs.

Esteban Galeano
Research associate Esteban Galeano is exploring how cutting-edge genomics techniques can be applied to improve white spruce and lodgepole pine breeding programs. (Photo: Supplied)

He uses the DNA from tree needles as a paternity test to help identify inferior trees, and to detect trees and seedlings that are a product of pollen contamination. He’s also exploring ways to assess early growth in trees through gene expression rather than through time-consuming, labour-intensive methods of physical measurement, and is using drones to investigate why lodgepole pine, in some Alberta orchards, are prematurely dropping their young seed-producing cones. 

Using technology to ensure sustainability

The research illustrates how cutting-edge technologies such as DNA analysis are being adapted to ensure sustainable forestry, Galeano noted.

“It’s not just about producing wood, but also about helping to conserve our native forests. When we do a good job by making sure the industry has enough improved and diverse seed for reforestation, which produces healthy stands that grow faster than our native forests, pressure can be taken off areas set aside for conservation.” 

DNA analysis also plays a role in exploring clone size and gender in aspens, another tree important to the forest industry.

Working to understand how aspen stands will respond to climate change—particularly drought—ALES PhD student Raiany Dias de Andrade Silva is analyzing DNA from stem tissue samples to determine gender and find out whether multiple stems in a stand are all the same genotype, or clone.

She’s testing a general theory that male aspens may currently dominate stands in Alberta due to greater drought resistance, which, under continued drying across the province, could lead to fewer female clones persisting on the landscape. 

Her work will also help identify whether the DNA taken from stem tissue samples are from the same tree or not, to determine genetic diversity in addition to clone size.

“Aspen will reproduce from seeds, but also from root suckering, which means that as the roots spread through the soil, new sprouts and a new tree will emerge that are all from the same genotype.” 

Understanding the natural clone size and gender of aspen assists the government in making policy decisions about reforestation, said Dias de Andrade Silva.

“If a company wants to reforest with improved aspen material, for example, how large an area that can be planted to a single clone or gender can be determined based on the natural range of variability found in Alberta.”

The results of her work will also help guide decisions for maintaining aspen forests in the face of conditions brought on by climate change. By testing male and female clones and seedlings under drought conditions, recommendations can be made to industry for managing aspen tree improvement programs, to ensure that selection of more drought-resistant clones, for example, is included in breeding programs. 

Although males may continue to outperform females on the landscape, it’s important that both genders are included to ensure enough diversity to produce new seed and allow for continued evolution of this long-lived clonal species, Dias de Andrade Silva added.

Other projects include modifying existing provincial growth and yield models to help government and industry predict how well their tree stands will grow using improved genetic stock, along with how much harvest volume to expect at current planting sites and future sites under climate change, and conducting economic analysis to show the value of investment in tree improvement for the future sustainability of Alberta’s forests. 

Research in the Thomas lab is supported by NSERC, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., Alberta Newsprint Company, Canadian Forest Products Ltd., Millar Western Forest Products Ltd., Huallen Seed Orchard Company Ltd., West Fraser Mills Ltd. including Slave Lake Veneer, Blue Ridge Lumber, Hinton Wood Products, Sundre Forest Products, and Weyerhaeuser Company Ltd. including Grande Prairie Timberlands & Pembina Timberlands, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Canada Foundation for Innovation, ACA Grants in Biodiversity, Project Learning Tree Canada and Eco Canada student grants.