Stopping the Spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle

A small insect is causing big problems for Canada’s forestry industry.

The mountain pine beetle (MPB) is about the size of a grain of rice and it’s common to find more than 100 of them on a mass-attacked tree. Foresters first noted the beetle’s devastating impact on British Columbia’s lodgepole pine forests in the 1990s. A series of warm winters fuelled the outbreak, and the MPB soon spread east into Alberta, where it began to attack other species, including the jack pine, which is prevalent throughout the boreal forest that stretches all the way to the Atlantic.

Mountain pine beetle

Mountain pine beetle (iStockPhoto)

Since then, the MPB has affected roughly 20 million hectares of trees—half of the total volume of commercial lodgepole pine in B.C.

Understanding why some populations of lodgepole pine have a genetic resilience to the pest and mitigating the risks faced by jack pine are the main goals of a new project co-led by Carleton Biology Prof. Catherine Cullingham, who recently received $6.4 million for multidisciplinary research that will better inform policy makers and forest managers in government and industry.

“We know how the mountain pine beetle behaves in B.C., but it’s in a novel environment in Alberta with a novel host,” says Cullingham, who is collaborating with University of Alberta Prof. Janice Cooke on this project, funded by Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Ontario Genomics and Natural Resources Canada.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about what might happen next, which means it’s a good time to try to figure things out.”

Prof. Catherine Cullingham

Prof. Catherine Cullingham

Much has changed in the two or so decades since scientists began paying serious attention to the MPB. Most important, perhaps, is the tremendous leap forward in genome sequencing.

Cullingham, whose Genomics of Plants, Pathogens and Pests lab at Carleton uses methods from molecular biology, landscape ecology, population genetics/genomics and geographic information systems (GIS), says these advances have helped researchers gain a deeper understanding of both the pine hosts and MPB genetics.

Much like SARS-CoV-2, however, the MPB is evolving and could develop the ability to withstand Alberta’s colder winters. Moreover, the hot 2021 summer (and the potential for similar summers in the years ahead) could stress trees and make them more susceptible. Which makes the puzzle that Cullingham and her colleagues are attempting to piece together even more complex.

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