Checking for gaps in the genetic conservation of forest trees

In Europe, genetic conservation of forest trees is mainly carried out within designated areas called ‘dynamic conservation units’ (Read more). Until recently, no geo-referenced information was available on these units and no common criteria were used by European countries for establishing and managing them. With the launch of the European Information System on Forest Genetic Resources (EUFGIS) in 2010, these problems were largely solved and better data were made available for assessing the coverage of the European genetic conservation network.

As a next step, it would be important to know the amount of genetic diversity conserved within the dynamic conservation units in Europe. During the past 20 years, various European research projects have sampled thousands of tree populations and studied their genetic diversity and relationships. However, data collected by these projects are scattered among different databases or sometimes only found in grey literature. “If these data were put together in a consistent manner, they could provide decision-makers and forest managers in Europe with answers to questions such as what actions are needed to avoid losing valuable tree populations and genetic resources as a consequence of climatic change or human activities”, says Koen Kramer, the project coordinator.
Photo: Partners discuss workplans in small groups. Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz
Teams of researchers involved in the FORGER project are now building bridges between disconnected databases. Two major pan-European databases on forest genetic resources namely EUFGIS and the Geo-referenced Database on Genetic Diversity (GD2) were linked earlier this year. GD2 provides geo-referenced data on the genetic diversity of tree populations sampled by earlier research projects, while EUFGIS makes available detailed data on dynamic gene conservation units of forest trees in 36 European countries. The integration of the two databases allows to examine how genetic diversity of selected tree species is distributed across Europe and to understand how well this diversity is included inthe existing network of the genetic conservation units.

During the second annual meeting, held in Wageningen, Netherlands on 2-4 April 2014, the FORGER partners discussed preliminary results that offer some interesting insights and at the same time, highlight new challenges. Tea Huotari, a post-doctorate researcher at METLA, shared her thoughts on how the project is addressing these challenges.

Ewa Hermanowicz: Tell me about your research within FORGER.
Tea Huotari: I have assembled data on genetic diversity for  five tree species (pedunculate oak, sessile oak, Norway spruce, beech and Scots pine) at the European level, mainly based on GD2 and scientific publications, and sometimes even contacting authors directly. We have then re-analyzed the data to look for patterns in the distribution of genetic diversity in these four species. Finally, the maps were created by overlapping the data with the network of the conservation units  to examine what part of the genetic diversity of these species falls outside the current conservation network  in Europe. This work will allow identifying conservation gaps and is critical for proposing action to fill them. Photo: Dr Tea Huotari. Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz
EH: Why did you focus on these particular species, which are not endangered?
TH: They are common and have a wide distribution across Europe. They are better studied so we had access to a large amount of data. In the case of pedunculate oak, we focused on the northern marginal populations to see if their genetic diversity differed considerably from that of populations from the central part of the distribution range and to analyze how well these populations at the margin were represented within the network of the conservation units. We found that the genetic diversity of these northern populations is lower than in Central Europe and we will study these populations further.
EH: Is it possible that these patterns in the distribution of genetic diversity apply to other European tree species?
TH: Not necessarily. The historical events, such migration after the last Ice Age, affected species differently and are reflected in different patterns of genetic diversity. In addition, the size of the distribution range has an influence on the spatial distribution of genetic diversity. Now that we have collected the data, we are already seeing some interesting results and I am really excited about the progress we are making.