Scientists uncover new DNA details about ancient trees on Vancouver Island

UBC team sampled trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park to see how they mutate over time

UBC researcher Vince Hanlon is amongst Sitka spruce trees, averaging 80 metres tall and ranging in age from 220 years to 500 years old, in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of British Columbia, TJ Watt)

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 of forestry at the University of British Columbia, 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.

“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.”

READ MORE: Public outcry prompts reprieve for old-growth forest near Port Renfrew

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

Just Posted

Cricket players get interrupted by racist remark in Courtenay

Community has had protocols in place for years to respond to prejudice

Courtenay woman desperately searches for missing dog

Anyone who owns a dog will understand the anguish of a Courtenay… Continue reading

Valley chef Ronald St. Pierre to be inducted into BC Restaurant Hall of Fame

A Comox Valley chef will soon join other culinary legions in the… Continue reading

YANA Ride in Comox raises thousands for families with medical needs

In its seventh year, the event attracted the maximum 600 riders on Sunday

VIDEO: RCMP unveil new, state-of-the-art forensics lab in Surrey

The laboratory is expected to handle thousands of forensic services from across Canada annually

Scheer promises EI tax credit for new parents if Conservatives form government

The government currently taxes employment insurance benefits for new parents

3L Developments reviews options

As a result of the recent BC Supreme Court decision that favoured… Continue reading

B.C. seizes 1.5M grams contraband tobacco, down from 5.75M grams the year prior

The 2019-2020 seizures were a sharp drop compared to the 2018-2019 year,

B.C. Speaker tight-lipped about aide’s legislature security tour

B.C. Liberals question Alan Mullen’s drive across Canada, U.S.

B.C. sets rules for ride hailing, same minimum fee as taxis

Larger operating areas seen as threat by cab companies

B.C. manhunt suspects left cellphone video before they died: family

Family member says Kam McLeod, Bryer Schmegelsky recorded final wishes

Most Read