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Brain Food: NAU Forester Looks For 'Survival Gene' In SW White Pine Trees


The Southwestern White Pine is under attack from a parasite. Almost all the trees infected by the "Blister Rust" fungus die. That's why forester Kristen Waring is searching for the rare genes in the species that can combat the deadly spores.

Waring says the concern is that most of the trees don't have a resistance to the parasite. "We've done gene conservation collections," she says, "so, we've gone out and climbed the trees and collected the cones and taken the seeds out and sent them to seed banks for long-term storage. So, even if those trees die from "rust" or from something else, we still have their genetics. Essentially, we can pull those seeds out of the seed bank if we need to, and grow new ones."

Waring is a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University. She says the non-native "Blister Rust" fungus has caused widespread die-off in much of the Southwestern White Pine populations of New Mexico. And now it's moved into eastern Arizona.

"Ultimately," Waring says, "we would like to know where in the landscape we have genetic resistance to the "blister rust", where we have high frequencies of other traits that will be helpful in the future under climate change such as drought resistance or cold hardiness and whether those match up with the resistance traits." She adds, "Then we add climate change scenarios into that so we can essentially map the landscape and figure out where this tree will survive best in the future."

Under her research grant - the largest ever awarded to NAU's School of Forestry - Waring is growing thousands of Southwestern White Pine seedlings to test their resilience. Her goal is to find the genes that can survive disease and climate change. But, she's not sure yet if those genes are one and the same.