People walking outside in the forest at the University of Oulu

Genetic researchers searching for solutions to the problems caused by climate change

What will happen to trees and crops during the climate change? The future looks grim: the spreading of diseases will accelerate, and the environments can change suddenly. One possible answer to these challenges is breeding plants with new attributes by using genetic research.

At a seminar organized in Oulu March 18–19, top geneticists considered whether genes and breeding can offer solutions to the problems arising from the climate change.

Internationality as a resource

“We have a strong plant genetics research in Oulu. We research what kind of qualities help the Scots pine trees to adapt to these conditions “, Outi Savolainen, professor from the University of Oulu. Savolainen considers international co-operation vital to genetic research.

“The genome of Scots pine is seven times as large as the genome of humans. When researching a genome this big, it is crucial to have international co-operation. When a researcher in France finds adaptation that helps the pine tree adapt to their climate, it also advances our research”, Savolainen clarifies.

The seminar was attended by breeders, genetic resources protectors and genomic evolution researchers around the world. All plants are related to each other and they don’t recognize the borders of countries. Therefore, plant research is also not restricted to the borders of a country.

“The idea behind this seminar was that geneticist can answer to the climate change globally”, summarizes Natural Resource Institute Finland’s research professor Katri Kärkkäinen.

The University of Oulu and The Natural Resource Institute Finland are partnered together in a number of research projects. One of the research projects is B4EST, which investigates the possibilities of using genetic research in the forestry industry.

Researcher presenting findings at the botanical gardens of the university of oulu

Professor Rodomiro Ortiz from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences says that genetic research can find a solution to poverty, hunger and climate change.

Across Generations

Part of the theme of the seminar was “across generations”. The adaptation to environment happens across generation and the climate change impacts greatly the next generations. Seminar was as well a sendoff for three top researchers in the field who are retiring. Savolainen claims that when it comes to preparing for climate change, it is crucial to understand how the current situation has evolved. At the same time, we have to look into the future and solve how the genetic resources are protected and used.

“We have to solve the adaptation of trees and the problems arising from the climate change very quickly in the future. By using genetic research, we can breed trees faster than before. For example, we can find genes that help producing more timber from smaller areas or genes that can help prevent insect infestation”, Kärkkäinen envisions.

Honorary speakers at the seminar Bengt Andersson Gull, Antoine Kremer, Outi Savolainen

The honorary speakers of the seminar Prof. Bengt Andersson Gull (Skogforsk), Prof. Antoine Kremer (INRA) and Prof. Outi Savolainen are retiring, but the genetic research continues across generations.

The way to future can be found by looking into past

“The Forestry Nobel”, i.e. prestigious Wallenberg Award-winning researcher Antoine Kremer spoke in the seminar about the microevolution of oak trees. Microevolution means evolutive adaptation that happens in a lower level than species level. It has been suggested that oak trees, due to their long life-span, are not able to cope with the climate change. However, Kramer has proven with experimental evolutionary genetics that adaptive differentiation has extensively occurred during past environmental changes in oak trees. By looking into the genome of the species we can look both in to the past and future.

“It is relatively easy to do research with cereal crops. Crops grow faster and it’s easier to do hybridization with them. Forest trees grow much slower and there’s plenty of research to be done with them. We are developing genetic tools to process the huge genome of Scots pine tree”, Savolainen explains.

Kärkkäinen, who works in Luke’s office in Oulu, is interested about breeding trees to new uses.

"The reason for climate change is largely found in the oil-based economy. Oil is a major polluter and to get rid of it, we need more bio-based products. New bio-products and compounds set new expectations for wood quality”, Kärkkäinen explains.

Seminar was organized in the renewed Visitor Center of the Botanical Gardens.


Text and photos Tiina Strand

Last updated: 22.3.2019