An exploitation of the genetic diversity of trees will enable new and existing forests to maintain their functionality, despite climate change. The more genetically diverse a forest is, the better its ability to adapt. The value of the forest in terms of woodland products, biodiversity and services such as soil protection and water retention is greater as well. Koen Kramer discussed these issues on Thursday 8 October in his inaugural address as Professor (by special appointment) of Quantitative Forest Genetics at Wageningen University.
Research conducted over many decades has revealed the essentials of genetic diversity in European forests and the spatial distribution of genetic variation. A great deal of DNA information is linked to tree characteristics: how early do the leaves appear, for example, or how well can a tree cope with drought? Research means, in particular, a lot of data analysis and model building. “We are increasingly able to understand which genes belong to which characteristics and what this means for how trees function. We now want to build on this expertise,” Professor Koen Kramer said in his inaugural address Conservation, use and management of forest genetic resources in a changing world.
Genetic knowledge is necessary for allowing forests to function well, even in times of climate change, air pollution and diseases. “Forest managers should start to realise that if you use only local seed or seedlings you won’t know for certain whether they’re equipped to cope with what the forest is facing. Probably not. At the same time, it’s also unwise to import, for example, beech trees and beech nuts from a warmer country like Romania, as that can lead to problems, too. You need to think about the sort of climate the forest is heading for and the ways it will need to adapt. Then you can adjust your genetic material accordingly and ensure there’s sufficient genetic diversity.” A failure to do that will cause major problems for both the forest manager and the forest.
Kramer also believes the source of genetic material should be better registered. “We’re now starting to make ‘fingerprints’ of trees using DNA markers. This enables you to show the origin of seeds or seedlings. A good reference database needs to be set up for this.” The ultimate goal is a database of trees which are capable of surviving, for example, flooding, and which are disease-resistant or drought-tolerant. The database would also link this information to the genetic fingerprints and information on good genetic variation. If forest managers exploit a forest sensibly it will continually be able to adjust to changes in the world.