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WSL researcher awarded €2 million EU grant for a participatory science project

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How do genes and the environment shape together the survival and growth of forest trees? WSL geneticist Katalin Csilléry will address using a large-scale experiment run by many volunteer foresters across Europe and tools borrowed from animal and plant breeding. She has received one of the renowned grants from the European Research Council (ERC Consolidator Grant) worth 2 million euros.


The project is called "MyGardenOfTrees” and intends to study how genes and the environment interact to determine the survival and growth of two tree species: beech and silver fir. "It will be the first transplant experiment covering the entire species range and also beyond,” says Dr Katalin Csilléry from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

Several hundreds of foresters across Europe will participate in this research. They will plant seeds from carefully selected sources and carry out observations on the seedlings. “Contrary to common practice in forestry, we will not use nurseries to grow seedlings, but plant seeds directly to the forest. This is the only way to learn of about natural regeneration.” explains Dr Csilléry.

The observations, as well as novel genetic data, will be fed into a statistical model called “genomic prediction”, developed by animal and plant breeders. “Thanks to this method, we will be able to develop a tool to choose optimal seed sources at any given location. It will be a pay-off for the foresters for their participation.” adds Dr Csilléry.


Supporting a climate smart forestry

Dr Csilléry studied genetics and statistics at the University of Edinburgh, and after her thesis made a carrier change to work on the ecology and genetics of forest trees. She is dedicated to a research that also serves in practice. “Healthy forests are essential to combat climate change. Sadly, ongoing climate change is too fast for many forest tree populations to adapt", she explains. In some places it will become necessary to plant new species or trees from far away locations, a practice called "assisted migration". With the ERC grant, Dr Csilléry’s group will, among other things, explore the risks and benefits of this practice.