Breeding climate resilient plants

11 December 2018

Research at the ANU Borevitz Lab aims to address three overlapping objectives:  improve agricultural yields, restore degraded landscapes and draw down carbon from the atmosphere to reverse global warming.

“Trees, and other foundation species that have a strong role in structuring ecosystems, help build the soil, provide biomass, shade cover and capture water” said Prof Justin Borevitz from the Research School of Biology.   “They also capture carbon via photosynthesis and store some of it in the soil via their roots.   These roots can also even weather rocks and help release nutrients for other plants.    So trees are vital for regenerating degraded landscapes, which in turn can help increase agricultural productivity and preserve biodiversity.”

However as Australia’s climate gets more extreme, with ever harsher droughts, fires and floods, there is concern that some species may not be able to adapt to these harsher environments.

This year Dr Megan Supple and others from the Borevitz lab, CSIRO, and parks WA, published an important research paper investigating the genetic diversity of a foundation eucalypt species to see how it might adapt to the changing climate.     The results of the research were actually more promising than expected.

“The good news is that Australia’s native eucalypts have more climate adaptation potential than we’d thought, with a lot of genetic diversity”

said Prof Borevitz.  “What this means is that we don’t have to worry about selecting and breeding special seeds to make sure they’re resilient.   We can get on with the task of planting trees, safe in the knowledge that a proportion of them will survive and thrive.”

The researchers will now continue to explore the adaptation potential of other eucalypt species, acacias and native grasses, as well as crops, which are traditionally monocultures, and therefore much more vulnerable to our changing climate.  

Prof Borevitz sees enormous potential for scaling up tree planting across Australia, and indeed the world.

“Given that we think we can use eucalypts very widely, it could be similar story for acacias that also fix nitrogen and live in very harsh conditions. 

Australia is long on land and degraded soils that need improvement and trying to bring trees back into agro-ecosystems could have massive benefits for farmers and pastoralists. 

Then in terms of sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, if we scale this to one million km2, we could draw down a Gigatonne of CO2 every year for the rest of the century.”

However Prof Borevitz points out that substantial investment is required to get to the next step.

“This isn’t just research, it’s also development and deployment - we need to move from theory, models and lab studies to scaled up field studies.  We’ll be aiming to trial forest farms of 100 hectares across the country, where we plant different species in different climates, with different soil types and treatments , and then after we get a few hundred of these we should be able to make more confident predictions.  Ultimately If we could get 100 billion trees planted across Australia, then we can start to make a dent in climate change and also improve agricultural production at the same time.”

Read more about the research here.