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The ‘23andMe’ for Whitebark Pine trees

A Whitebark Pine stands on top of a mountain amongst the snow, with a burn orange sky in the background.
Quinn Lowrey
Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation
Whitebark Pine at sunset in the northern Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada.

The Whitebark Pine tree is on the decline, and scientists are working hard to try to save the threatened species.

Picture the tree-line right before you get into the alpine. In the winter, there’s massive snow storms, and in the summer there’s a short growing season – Whitebark Pine thrives there, according to the National Park Service.

But, David Neale, chair of the board of directors of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, said the keystone species was listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act about a year ago.

“In some cases, it's complete decimation. Where there was a landscape of healthy trees, now, there's nothing but dead snags,” Neale said.

That’s largely because of pine beetle and fungus infestation. Both are becoming more common with the warming climate, and when they set hold in a tree, they slowly kill it, depriving it of nutrients.

“And of course, now that's going to impact everything else in its environment,” Neale said. “It's a food source for the Clark's Nutcracker (bird) and grizzly bears and other organisms. So it's a major environmental impact to the high elevation mountain environment.”

So, Neale and his team are collecting the trees’ genes – everything from sick to healthy – to find the genes that are resistant to disease. It’s called ‘sequencing the genome.’

“The analogy that I use over and over again, is we're trying to develop the ‘23andMe’ for trees,” he said, referencing a company that can tell people about health predispositions and genetic traits based on large reference of genetic datasets.

“So we seek to do the same thing for trees,” Neale said. “Put a pine needle in a tube, send it in, and we hope would come a report that would tell a land manager, ‘Yes, this is a tree source that you might use in your restoration program,’ or alternatively, ‘No, this one does not have the genetic composition. So don't go out there and plant that one.’”

It’ll take a few years to collect this database, right now they’ve only completed the ‘reference’ genome, and will largely depend on funding for the research. But basically, it’ll create a way to quickly and affordably test other Whitebark Pine to see if they have the disease resistant genes, and if they do, then the seeds can be used to plant more healthy trees.

Currently, restoration efforts for the tree take a lot more time and money. Basically, researchers find trees that seem to be disease resistant, harvest those seeds, grow the seeds at a nursery, testing those seedlings for disease resistance over several years, monitoring for another decade or so, and then planting elsewhere. This can cost up to $1,800 per tree, according to Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporting. But, Neale said this new method will likely be much cheaper and quicker, possibly to the tune of $100 per tree and it’ll only take a few weeks.

Neale said trees for their research are being used from all over the western U.S., including Wyoming. Specifically, he said samples have been taken from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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