How repeatable is the evolutionary process? This central question of biology may be addressed by observing the adaptation of different species to similar environments. This was the goal of an international research team from six universities, including Virginia Tech, whose results were published in Science.

Co-authors Associate Professor Jason Holliday and doctoral candidate Haktan Suren investigated how two conifer tree species adapt to different climatic conditions. The team’s large-scale analysis on lodgepole pine and interior spruce revealed that both use the same suite of 47 genes to adapt to geographic variation in temperature and to appropriately time acquisition of cold hardiness — a trait that allows plants to tolerate the adverse conditions of winter.

The extent of the similarities at the genomic level was surprising owing to the evolutionary distance between the two species, which began evolving independently more than 140 million years ago. One implication of this work is that environmental adaptations may be genetically constrained. Holliday explained that a subset is required for adaptation to occur, even when comparing species that diverged long ago.

The team hopes the results of their study will enable them to offer better recommendations for forest management strategies in changing climates and planting trees that would be more likely to thrive and more quickly adapt to climate change.

Read the full press release.