UW lab discovers trees can alter genetic structure to compete for resources The Badger Herald


Change happens everywhere, but it’s how living things adapt that matters – a aspen forests are a perfect example.

A new decade-long to study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin reveals how aspens can alter their genetic structure to compete for sunlight and defend against pests like ants, moths and other tree-eating insects.

Ecology professor Rick Lindroth and Lindroth’s lab led the study. In their research, the laboratory mainly focuses on the functional traits of plants and their influence on plant ecology.

“Functional traits are things like photosynthesis rates, growth rates, phonology, and chemistry, Lindroth said. “How do these different functions influence their ability to compete with other organizations?” “

The Lindroth Laboratory also studied the trade-offs between some of these traits in different genetic strains of aspens – those that grow well defend themselves poorly and those who defend well grow poorly in competition with one another. Lindroth said he had already tested this short-term with potted plants, but wanted to know what happens in a more natural environment when these trees grow for long periods of time.

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Lindroth’s proposed question was: “Do these trade-offs ultimately shape the genetic structure of aspen populations in different environments?” By seeking to answer this question, they are able to see natural selection at work – an element of evolution, said Lindroth.

So what is the science behind the changes in the genetic structure of aspen forests?

Aspens are a pioneer species. When the seeds float long distances, thousands of seedlings begin to germinate in areas of natural disasters, such as land decimated by a forest fire, and dense areas of trees begin to grow.

Over time, some seeds “win” and gain better access to resources like sunlight, while others “lose” the race for resources due to competition. In these environments, priority is given to the ability to grow quickly, because you can access sunlight better than and outperform slow growers, Lindroth said.

Eventually, aspens that are overtaken grow more slowly, while those that reach sunlight grow faster. Then the slow growing trembling aspen will eventually become extinct under natural conditions, Lindroth said.

“We’ve established the stands and we’ve created some with strong competition and some with low competition,” Lindroth said. “And under these conditions, we predicted that the fast-growing and poorly defended ones would be particularly favored in conditions of strong competition as they have to compete for sunlight. And that’s exactly what happened. The slow growing and well defended ones have just died out on us.

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After analysis of the data, the survival of aspen was different in these different levels of competition. Thus, under fiercely competitive conditions, survival ranged from six percent to about 88 percent. But under conditions of low competition, 22 to 100 percent of aspens survive, showing that the genetic frequency of high or low competition is different because more trees die, said Clay Morrow, a sixth-grade doctoral student. year at Lindroth’s lab.

Genetic diversity is very important for the maintenance of biological diversity. The more genetic variability there is in a population like aspen, the more it supports other communities, Morrow said.

“It’s important for long-term ecological success. It maintains many different species because they do different things in this environment, okay, they recycle nutrients at different rates and they grow and break down at different rates, and they support different herbivore communities and pathogens, ”Lindroth said.

With climate change being a significant problem today, Wisconsin’s forests will be radically different a hundred years from now, Lindroth said. While it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to happen, we are now entering a whole new climate.

We’re used to a northern temperate forest ecosystem, so as climate change continues, many aspens and a number of other species will either disappear or their ranges will shift north, said Lindroth.

Overall, aspen has provided the scientific community with valuable information on natural selection, the effects of climate change, and adaptations.

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