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Major new study will explore if a tree’s ‘memory’ can increase its resilience

Experts at the University will contribute to a major new study exploring whether trees can remember past stress conditions such as drought or disease and transfer these memories to their descendants through epigenetics-based DNA modifications – changes that alter the activity of some genes, without changing the DNA sequence.

Expanding the UK’s trees, woodlands and forests will play an important role in realising the Government’s ambition to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, our treescapes need to become more resilient to pressures such as changing climate, disease, and competing demands for land in order to reverse decades of decline in biodiversity and environmental quality.

The study will begin to fill the gaps in our current limited understanding of how past experiences impact adaption to different environmental stresses.

The MEMBRA project (Understanding Memory of UK Treescapes for Better Resilience and Adaptation) is led by the University of Birmingham, and includes contributions from the Universities of Leeds, Leicester, and Bangor University.

Bangor University’s tree diversity experiment, BangorDiverse, will be used to investigate the impact of drought, increased carbon dioxide, and disease induced stresses on changes to DNA, and patterns of tree growth and death over time.  Their research will form part of the project which combines expertise in Biology, Ecology, Classics, Geography and Earth Sciences.

“MEMBRA will provide tools to identify which species and populations will offer better resilience and adaptation and can therefore be used most effectively in conservation and planting strategies,” explained Dr Luna-Diez of the University of Birmingham.

Co-investigator, Dr Andy Smith, a Forest Ecologist and Biogeochemist at Bangor University, said:
“BangorDiverse is a unique resource that will enable MEMBRA to explore how tree species diversity influences the resilience and adaption of forests to environmental stress.”

Co-investigator Dr Adriane Esquivel Muelbert, from the University of Birmingham, who specialises in global forest ecology, said: “We will look into the past to understand the level of stress UK woodlands have been through and are experiencing now by accessing information from forests monitored across the UK for decades. The ecology and functioning of these woodlands will be integrated to molecular data allowing us to understand the capacity of UK forests to adapt to stress.”

The project is one of six to receive a share of £10.5 million from UK Research and Innovation in its Future of UK Treescapes Programme which will improve our understanding of the value of trees to people and the planet, and support the expansion of treescapes across the UK. The projects are developing new tools and approaches which will help trees and woodlands adapt to climate change and enable the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers will partner with Forestry England, The National Forest Company, Small Woods and Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales) as part of the project. Once the project begins, the team is keen to develop new partnerships with other interested organisations.

“The results of MEMBRA can feed into policy development and the flourishing of the first memory-inspired forest – the MEMBRA Treescape,” added Dr Luna-Diez.

Forestry Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said:

“I am delighted to be supporting this new research programme, which will emphasise the importance of treescapes and help deliver our tree planting ambitions.

In the run up to COP26 this is an exciting opportunity to showcase how the UK’s cutting-edge science can deepen our understanding of the health and environmental benefits provided by trees while ensuring they are protected for future generations.”

Publication date: 20 August 2021

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