That trees need to match their habitats may sound obvious. But those habitats are changing as the planet warms—and trees can’t exactly get up and walk to a new home. If a species cannot keep pace with a changing climate, it is doomed. Because the trees themselves cannot relocate, scientists are exploring a novel solution: relocating the plants’ DNA.
Sally N. Aitken, director of the ’s Center for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia, believes that saving the forests of the Canadian province—and others around the world—may hinge on a practice called assisted gene flow. It could help species adapt to future conditions by moving organisms with particular traits from one part of their natural range to another. A tree from Oregon and a tree from Alaska just might have some genes that could help each other out. But without intervention, they would never meet. Like an arboreal matchmaker, a forester could take seeds from spruces or lodgepole pines at a low elevation, say, and plant them farther upslope. As temperatures on the higher slopes warmed, the relocated trees would grow up and breed with their local counterparts, spreading their warm-adapted genes throughout the area and thus helping the forest adjust. Assisted gene flow could give species an evolutionary hand.