Long-lived trees face a lot of challenges throughout their lives. Many trees can live for centuries, which can be a problem because plants cannot get up and move when conditions become unfavorable. This should equate to a slower rates of adaptation and evolution for long lived trees but that isn’t always the case. Many trees are often superbly capable of adapting to local conditions. Recently, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia have provided some insights into the genetic mechanisms that may underpin such adaptive potential.
Genetic insights came from a species of conifer many will be familiar with - the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). Researchers were interested in these trees because they live for a long time (upwards of 500 years or more) and can grow to heights of over 70 meters (230 ft.). They wanted to understand how genetic mutations work in trees like the Sitka spruce because plants are doing things a bit different than animals in that department.
Plants are modular organisms, meaning they grow by producing multiple copies of discrete units. This equates to a branching structure whose overall shape is in large part determined by environmental influences. It also means that when genetic mutations occur in one branch, they can be carried on throughout the growth of those tissues independent of what is going on throughout the rest of the plant. This means that older trees can often accumulate a surprising amount of genetic diversity throughout the entire body of the plant.
When researchers sampled the DNA of tissues from the trunks and the needles of tall, old growth Sitka spruce, they were shocked by what they had found. From the base of the tree to the needles in the canopy, an old growth Sitka spruce can show as much as 100,000 genetic differences. That is a lot of genetic diversity for a single organism. Though plenty of other trees have been found to exhibit varying levels of genetic differences within individuals, this is one of the highest mutation rates ever found in a single eukaryotic organism. This could also explain why such long-lived organisms can survive in a changing world for their entire lives.
Now, it is important to note that many mutations are likely either neutral or potentially harmful. Also, the rates of mutation may differ depending on where you look on this tree. For instance, needles at the top of a Sitka spruce are going to be exposed to far more gene-altering UV radiation than bark tissues near the base. Still, over the lifetime of a single tree, rare beneficial mutations can and do accumulate. Imagine a scenario in which one branch mutation results in needles that are more resistant to say an insect pest. Those needles could hypothetically receive less damage than needles elsewhere on the tree. This odd form of selection is occurring within the lifetime of that tree and may even have implications for the future offspring of that tree thanks again to the quirks of how tree reproductive cells develop.
Many trees also do not have segregated germlines. What this means is that unlike animals whose reproductive cells develop from separate cell lineages than the rest of their body cells, the reproductive cells of trees develop from somatic cells, which are the same cells that form stems, leaves, and branches. This means that if a mutation occurs on the germline of a branch that eventually goes on to produce cones, these mutations can be passed on in the seeds of those cones. This obviously needs a lot of evidence to substantiate but now that a mechanism is in place, we know where and what to look for.