Genome mapping could save ash trees from extinction.

Golden ash tree. Photo: Morguefile

Ash trees have a significant impact on the world around them. They have long been used for making tools and furniture, but more importantly, they’re one of the most common trees in Britain and are found throughout Europe and North America. In Europe, they provide shelter or sustenance for over 1,000 other species of plants and animals. And on both continents, they’re threatened.

In Europe, the ash dieback fungus has infected tens of millions of trees, while in North America the Emerald Ash Borer beetle has killed hundreds of millions of the trees.

Suffice to say, something needs to be done to prevent these factors from eliminating ash trees altogether. That’s why a team at Queen Mary University of London has mapped the ash tree genome and found some genes that are resistant to ash dieback. There are most likely some resistant to Emerald Ash Borers as well.

By mapping the genome, researchers can figure out what genes make ash trees resistant, and then breed trees with those genes, in order to get generations of trees that won’t be at risk. It’s the first step on a process that could save a lot of trees and a lot of ecosystems.

And interestingly enough, in mapping that genome, we found a lot of “orphan genes,” which is to say genes not yet found in any other species. Orphan genes are fascinating; they further complicate evolutionary records because there is no way to know how they evolved.

While scientists have only fully mapped 10 other species of plants, it seems likely that there should have been some evidence of these genes in those other species, making the evolution of the ash tree more complex than they had previously thought.

Learning more about the evolutionary history of ash trees might also help researchers to figure out ways to protect them from threats like fungus and beetles.