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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

New branch of Royal BC Museum to be built in Colwood

New faclity in the Royal Bay development will house collections, archives and research department

Sooke RCMP searching for two people, reported missing on Sept. 10

Alannah Brooke Logan, 20, and Beau Richard Santuccione, 32, last seen on Otter Point Road

Victoria man plans 30-hour walk to raise funds for vulnerable youth

Take a Hike engages youth in intensive, clinical counselling and outdoor experiential learning

New urgent, primary care health centre opens in Saanich come November

North Quadra area facility to provide same-day, ongoing care for folks without family doctors

3 new deaths due to COVID-19 in B.C., 139 new cases

B.C. confirms 40 ‘historic cases,’ as well

POLL: Do you plan on allowing your children to go trick or treating this year?

This popular annual social time will look quite different this year due to COVID-19

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Comox Valley protesters send message over old-growth logging

Event in downtown Courtenay was part of wider event on Friday

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Application deadline for fish harvester benefits program extended

Those financially impacted by the pandemic have until Oct. 5 to apply

Young Canadians have curtailed vaping during pandemic, survey finds

The survey funded by Heart & Stroke also found the decrease in vaping frequency is most notable in British Columbia and Ontario

VIDEO: B.C. to launch mouth-rinse COVID-19 test for kids

Test involves swishing and gargling saline in mouth and no deep-nasal swab

Most Read