Newly formed AtlanTIC prepares to fight climate change with genomics-based tree improvement

Published: March 19th 2021

Second generation white spruce growing in the Parkindale Seed Orchard, owned by J.D. Irving Limited. The orchard is used to produce high quality seed for reforestation. Photo Courtesy of J.D. Irving Limited.

Genome Atlantic is helping the newly formed Atlantic Tree Improvement Council, known as AtlanTIC, get up and running with an initial $6 million, five-year regional tree improvement program for long-term forest sustainability.

Among AtlanTIC’s “big objectives,” said Stefan Richard, Executive Director of the new regional non-profit, is to leverage “the genetic gains we get from tree improvement to fight and adapt to a changing climate – to make sure we’re planting the right kind of trees now for harvest in 35-50 years.” To do that AtlanTIC intends to facilitate and coordinate the region’s tree improvement breeding programs in order to respond to threats to commercial woodlands.

“For example,” said Mr. Richard, “if areas of New Brunswick are predicted to warm more due to climate change, perhaps some of the trees from the southern part of Nova Scotia will become more important, because genetically they evolved to grow in warmer temperatures.”

Genomics is set to have a starring role in the organization’s selective tree breeding program. Dr. Richard Donald, an Associate with Genome Atlantic’s business development team who has been closely involved in AtlanTIC’s gestation, cited program activities such as collecting germplasm, the seeds or living tissue from which new plants can be grown; conducting field trials in selected locations with different tree species; and doing data collection and analysis.

For Atlantic Canada’s forest industry, genomics offers new possibilities for developing commercial species with better growth rates, pest resistance, climate resilience and wood quality. That means more sustainable woodland, greater plantation productivity, and a competitive advantage for the industry.

Where conventional tree breeding methods take up to 30 years to verify the inherited traits in a new generation, Dr. Donald pointed out, genomic selection methods require only a few years. Traits can be confirmed in the genetic composition of the tree seeds, making the genomic route to commercial breeding faster, cheaper and more effective.  

The first regional tree development program undertaken by AtlanTIC will expand coordinated progeny testing throughout Atlantic Canada. Data will figure prominently in the initiative and the plan is to develop a database ontology in which relationships among collected data are described. Data collection methods will be standardized, and the latest big data statistical methods region-wide will be used. Also, on the agenda is integrating genomics technologies to improve tree breeding program outcomes, improving training and development of regional expertise, and ensuring knowledge transfers are made to AtlanTIC’s membership.

An estimated $4.7 million will be raised for AtlanTIC’s planned tree improvement activities through member contributions. The Nova Scotia Forestry Innovation Transition Trust recently awarded $315,000 to Genome Atlantic for AtlanTIC’s planned tree improvement work in Nova Scotia. Applications to other funding agencies are being considered.  

As an added bonus, Dr. Donald said the program aligns with Nova Scotia’s Lahey report, a 2018 review of the province’s forest practices that called for designated high-production forestry areas and allowing for biodiversity and more sustainable forests. Mr. Richard explained the program will improve commercial woodland productivity and boost genetic diversity by “bringing together sources of genetic material from across all four Atlantic provinces.”

AtlanTIC’s founding was facilitated by Genome Atlantic, through the work of Dr. Donald and Britta Fiander, Director, Innovation Programs, Genome Atlantic. The organization was propelled into the convener role by its region-wide connections with government and the forestry industry, and by its genomic expertise.

Dr. Donald said Genome Atlantic’s role involved “bringing people together, figuring out how this group is going to work, developing the bylaws, developing the mission statement, hiring the executive director, coming up with the initial budget and writing funding applications.”

The recent Genome Quebec-managed and Genome Atlantic-supported FastTRAC project, which focused on genomic selection for white and red spruce in New Brunswick and Quebec, helped validate the central role of genomics in AtlanTIC’s broad-based regional program. That project, funded through the Genomic Applications Partnership Program, involved J.D. Irving Limited, Laval University and the provincial governments of Quebec and New Brunswick.

AtlanTIC’s charter members from the forest industry are J.D. Irving Limited, Northern Pulp, and Port Hawkesbury Paper, but other companies in the region are expected to join and Mr. Richard said expanding the list is a priority.

The charter group also includes Genome Atlantic as well as government forestry departments: the federal government’s Canadian Forestry Service, Natural Resources Canada; Nova Scotia’s Department of Lands and Forestry; Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture; New Brunswick’s Department of Natural Resources and Crown Lands; and Prince Edward Island’s Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Industry.

Dr. Donald said membership will also be extended to universities in the region with the research capacity to engage in AtlanTIC’s tree improvement program. 

The reason for AtlanTIC’s formation lies in new and growing challenges facing the region’s forestry industry. There are increasing pressures to modernize facilities and methods, compete with off-shore competitors that have faster growing tree stock, adapt to changing social values associated with woodland, combat the harmful effects of climate change, and deal with the influx of invasive non-native pests.

Meanwhile, a consensus has grown that the region’s forestry players need to work together for shared solutions, which they cannot achieve alone or through their provincial organizations.

Mr. Richard said working together “increases the efficiency in this type of work. Whether it’s funding of research development projects, developing datasets that we require, or accessing different genetics, different species, that we need, we are much stronger as a group than we are as individual members.

 “And you get a multiplying effect,” he added. “So, for every research dollar that our members put in, we can multiply that – we can make the impact greater because we are a group working together towards the same goals.”