Ecologically dominant tree species serve as a major carbon sink to buffer the effects of climate change. Conifers have successfully adapted to changing climates over the past 250 million years, resulting in high genetic diversity and broad environmental ranges, and are expected to be an important component of climate mitigation as global temperatures continue to rise. The Swarts Lab uses quantitative, computational and population genetic approaches in forests across Europe to understand climate adaptation in Norway Spruce, an economically and ecologically critical tree species native to Scandinavia and Central Europe.The team uses annual growth measurements obtained from tree rings in conjunction with historical environmental data from weather stations, satellites and historical records to observe how a given individual tree responds to the diverse environments it experiences over its lifespan. Integrating these environmental responses with genetic variation measured from the same individual tree, the lab aims to identify the genetics underlying adaptive traits.
In temperate trees, annual rings are formed when growth pauses over the cold winter months. However, annual growth can be estimated from any species that forms annual rings, even in the tropics where some species form rings associated with reliable dry seasons. Hence, the Swarts lab’s ‘Tree Ring Genomics’ approach could be easily adapted to examine the health of various forests. Beyond understanding the genetics underlying adaptation to the environment, the Swarts lab aims to predict genetic responses to novel environments. “Predicting which trees would be best suited for planting in specific areas would ultimately contribute to maintaining healthy and resilient forests that can withstand the changing climate,” says Kelly Swarts. “My shared affiliation with the Gregor Mendel Institute and the Max Perutz Labs allows me to tap into a wealth of expertise that has supported the preliminary work leading to this successful proposal. I look forward to insightful and fruitful input from my colleagues to this project in years to come,” she concludes.