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Scientists look to trees’ genetics for clues to disease and pest resistance

MINNESOTA—Somewhere in their genetic makeup, trees may hold solutions to many of the pests and diseases besetting them, including the notorious and seemingly insatiable emerald ash borer. A workshop organized by the USDA Forest Service and partners brought over 100 tree genetic researchers and forest managers from around the world to Mt. Sterling, Ohio, Aug. 5–10 to discuss the challenges facing sustainability and expansion of healthy native, managed, and urban forests worldwide. Jennifer Koch, a research biologist with the Northern Research Station in Delaware, Ohio, chaired the organizing committee for the 6th International Workshop on the Genetics of Tree-Parasite Interactions, or more simply Tree Resistance to Insects and Diseases.

This is the first time since 1964 the meeting has been located in the eastern United States. Interest and international concern over diseases and pests documented in the region, including emerald ash borer, beech bark disease, chestnut blight, butternut canker, and hemlock woolly adelgid, drew scientists to Ohio this year.

Discussion focused on current successes in applied breeding and restoration programs as well as emerging ideas and technologies relevant to resistance genetics and breeding programs. The directions that individual breeding programs may choose for developing resistant trees in the future will likely rely heavily on the research that is shared and discussed at the workshop. As part of the workshop, participants visited sites including the Delaware Lab to see tree breeding.

The workshop was supported by the University of Kentucky’s Forest Health Research and Education Center, three working groups under the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, The Ohio State University, the American Phytopathological Society Forest Pathology Committee, INRA (a French public agricultural science research institute), New Phytologist Trust and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Forest Service scientists who served on the organizing committee included Richard Sniezko, Dana Nelson and Mark Coggeshall. Researchers at the Delaware Lab who helped prepare for the site visit included Kathleen Knight, Leila Pinchot, Dave Carey, Nancy Hayes-Plazolles, Kirsten Lehtoma and Tim Fox.

David Carey and workshop participants stand in tree breeding area.
Forest Service biological technician David Carey explains the technique Northern Research Station scientists use to prevent parasitoids from parasitizing emerald ash borer larvae that are part of bioassay experiments to screen ash trees for resistance. Photo courtesy Ignazio Graziosi, World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya.