U of A leads national scientific and industry collaboration to fight the mountain pine beetle epidemic

U of A leads national scientific and industry collaboration to fight the mountain pine beetle epidemic

Sandy Robertson - 9 January 2014

NSERC's Strategic TRIA Network is 'Turning Risk Into Action' (TRIA) to protect Canadian forests through science-based strategies to control the spread of the mountain pine beetle in Canada.

Building on the strengths of the TRIA research consortium that began in 2007, the highly collaborative initiative has just become a national enterprise - with close to $3 million in funding from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada's (NSERC) Strategic Network Grants program - ensuring the latest scientific discoveries are connected to decision-making in real time.

This larger TRIA-Net network, led by Director Dr. Janice Cooke of the University of Alberta and Co-Director Dr. Joerg Bohlmann of the University of British Columbia, will leverage the interdisciplinary strengths of 18 contributing scientists, government forest practitioners, and not-for-profit and industry organizations in collaboration to address the spread of this devastating forest insect through new areas.

Anyone who's travelled the postcard-perfect landscapes of British Columbia and Alberta may be familiar with the shocking sight of a forest in the red death-throes from the mountain pine beetle. Having now reached jack pine forests in Alberta, the beetle is poised to continue spreading to more eastern and northern locations, which is unprecedented in recent history.

As of today, more than 19 million hectares of forest land in western Canada have been affected by the outbreak. This has resulted in losses of over 1 billion cubic metres of mature pine trees, with additional damage dealt to the forest industry, recreational opportunities, plant and wildlife habitats, watersheds and a range of ecosystem services.

A look back

It's hard to believe it all started so innocently - native to the pine forests of south central BC, at lower density population levels the mountain pine beetle has historically played an important role in lodgepole and ponderosa pine forest renewal. Only when populations begin to reach epidemic levels do we start seeing this kind of large-scale mortality of forests.

"This is exactly what happened during the first part of the 2000s, when conducive climatic conditions enabled mountain pine beetle population levels to soar to epidemic and even hyperepidemic levels in BC's central interior," says Cooke.

By 2006, the mountain pine beetle had breached the Rocky Mountain barrier in a big way, flying long distances to establish themselves in the Peace River District of northwestern Alberta. Here, the lodgepole pine, which makes up much of the historic habitat for mountain pine beetle, hybridizes with jack pine - a species whose range stretches all the way to the Maritime Provinces. Given this fresh territory, it only took a few years for the mountain pine beetle to spread eastward across this hybrid zone in Alberta, successfully establishing populations in genetically pure jack pine - and knocking at the doorstep of Saskatchewan's northern forests. In the last couple of years, mountain pine beetle has even spread as far northward as the 60th parallel.

"These forests have not been considered part of the mountain pine beetle's native range, and to our knowledge have not sustained an outbreak in recent history. This raises a lot of questions about how easily mountain pine beetle can spread and become established in these new regions, perpetuating the outbreak," says Cooke.

As Provincial government agencies are tasked with the weighty responsibility of dealing with mountain pine beetle and other forest insect pests, these questions represent critical knowledge gaps that make it difficult for forest managers to design and execute effective spread control programmes. In the early years of the outbreak, forest managers were relying on models that weren't necessarily tuned to the conditions the beetle faces outside of their historic range. Forest managers need better risk assessment, monitoring, and forecasting tools, but the tools can only be as good as the information that feeds them. Scientists and managers need to get a better handle on the factors that influence outbreaks; particularly in these new regions that mountain pine beetle has recently spread. This knowledge matters for the provinces and territories that are facing imminent threat of mountain pine beetle, and also for provinces that are farther away from the outbreak.

"Mountain pine beetle is such an enormously complex problem, it requires a fundamentally different approach to create the new knowledge that is vital to controlling the spread of the beetle," notes Cooke. "The support from NSERC will allow us to provide decision-makers with the information and tools they need to develop science-based policy to fight the spread of this devastating forest insect pest."

Government, industry and not-for-profit organizations are also important supporters of the TRIA-Net project. "Our Government has made significant investments in response to the unprecedented mountain pine beetle outbreak, and to the economic pressures on forestry-based communities across Canada," said the Honourable Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources. "We are proud to support this initiative, so that together we can limit the beetle's expansion."

What we've learned

The ground-breaking research to date by TRIA researchers, and previously supported by Genome Alberta, Genome BC, and Genome Canada, has used innovative genomics strategies - the same sorts of approaches used in medicine - to uncover some of the mountain pine beetle's deepest secrets. Breakthroughs include a detailed map of the beetle's adaptation-oriented genome as well as the genome of some of the fungal symbionts carried by the beetle, that help it successfully colonize pine trees. The early research has also sequenced the genomes of lodgepole and jack pine whose particularly large genomes have made the work especially challenging.

Some of the implications of these genomic breakthroughs include the isolation of the fungal genes that help detoxify defence compounds in the bark of the tree, for example. "In a way, it's like these genes give the fungus the ability to turn poison into nectar," Bohlmann points out. The genomic resources have also helped to decipher the genes that mountain pine beetle larvae invoke to survive deep winter temperatures and for demonstrating the mountain pine beetle had successfully undergone host range expansion to jack pine.

More answers needed to protect Canadian forests

Mountain pine beetle is poised to continue its march northward, eastward and into higher elevations, spreading into forests that are believed never to have encountered mountain pine beetle before. "These 'naïve' trees do not share a co-evolutionary history with mountain pine beetle, so it's possible that they may be at greater risk. Indeed, early data from TRIA-Net researchers suggest that jack pine trees may be more vulnerable to mountain pine beetle. As the mountain pine beetle moves ever deeper into new regions, these novel habitats present conditions that may differ considerably from the mountain pine beetle's historic range, making it difficult for forest health managers to predict risk, and plan effective control strategies," says Cooke.

Based on these predicted advances, one of the key questions scientists are asking is whether mountain pine beetle is becoming better adapted to the harsh environmental conditions it encounters as it spreads northward and eastward. The answers will help to build better models to assess and predict spread, and to identify regions - and their communities - that are most vulnerable to the mountain pine beetle.

More about TRIA-Net

The TRIA-Net project is the culmination of three phases of development, established over the past six years. With 18 contributing scientists, the program will use a novel approach that integrates genomics, molecular analyses, population genetics, systematics, ecology, population dynamics, and modeling to improve our understanding of how mountain pine beetles interact with their pine hosts and the fungal symbionts that the beetles carry, how environmental conditions affect these interactions, and how the genetics of these organisms may influence mountain pine beetle spread.

TRIA-Net co-investigator and collaborator institutions


  • University of Alberta
  • University of British Columbia Vancouver and Okanagan campuses
  • Université Laval
  • Université de Montreal
  • University of Northern British Columbia
  • Natural Resources Canada - Canadian Forest Service
  • Alberta Innovates Technology Futures
  • University of Minnesota

Government, not-for-profit and industry partners


  • Alberta Environment, Sustainable Resources Development
  • Foothills Research Institute
  • Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship
  • Natural Resources Canada - Canadian Forest Service
  • Northwest Territories Department of Environment and Natural Resources
  • Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
  • Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment
  • West Fraser
  • Weyerhaeuser

TRIA-Net Investigators at the University of Alberta

In order to gain fundamentally new insights into a biological system as complex as the mountain pine beetle system, it is imperative to address the system in a concerted, global fashion. University of Alberta Investigators are key contributors within the interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative, Network Investigator team assembled to explore this system.

Janice Cooke (Network Director)

Expertise in plant biology, forest tree genomics and tree responses to biotic and abiotic stresses.

Department of Biological Sciences. http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/faculty/janice_cooke/

David Coltman (Theme Lead, Population Genomics)

Expertise in quantitative genetics, population genetics and genomics of wildlife.

Department of Biological Sciences. http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/faculty/david_coltman/

Nadir Erbilgin

Expertise in forest entomology and chemical ecology of plant-insect-pathogen interactions including bark beetles.

Department of Renewable Resources.

Maya Evenden

Expertise in insect chemical ecology and dispersal by flight.
Department of Biological Sciences. http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/faculty/maya_evenden/

Mark Lewis
Expertise in mathematical modelling of biological phenomena and spatial ecology of mountain pine beetle modelling.
Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/faculty/mark_lewis/

Felix Sperling
Expertise in population genetics and insect molecular systematics, including bark beetles.
Department of Biological Sciences. http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/faculty/felix_sperling/