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Lumen Summer 2011 Issue
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Global focus on forests


Trees for life Extracting DNA from timber

With 2011 declared the International Year of Forests by the United Nations, the world's attention will be focused on conservation efforts in this area - much of it involving the University of Adelaide. Candy Gibson reports.

In the past year, Professor Andrew Lowe has spent 17 weeks away from home. In 2010, the evolutionary biologist criss-crossed the world, visiting four continents to monitor progress on a number of forest-related projects.

At last count, he was managing more than $8 million worth of research grants on the domestic front and juggling a range of international roles, including the Chair of the International Union for Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO).

It's a punishing schedule but the results speak volumes.

In 2010, Professor Lowe (pictured left) and his University of Adelaide colleagues at the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity (ACEBB) embarked on an international project to develop a DNA barcode for every tree and grass species on earth.

The Barcode of Life projects (called TreeBol and GrassBol) are massive undertakings and will take years to complete, but the information will revolutionise the way we can manage our ecosystems around the globe, Professor Lowe says.

"Our aim is to generate a unique DNA fingerprint for every single species, which will help us to not only identify critically endangered species and make a biodiversity assessment, but also track illegally logged timber, which is a world first."

Professor Lowe's team is working with a Singapore company, Double Helix Tracking Technologies, to develop the first DNA check of timber in the world.

State Herbarium molecular biologist Dr Hugh Cross and two PhD students from the ACEBB are extracting DNA from individual splinter samples to trace the origins of their parent tree on the other side of the world.

"Using DNA bar code markers, we can work out whether it is endangered, or a more commonly occurring species that you can trade. We will then build up a DNA profile for logging concessions," Professor Lowe says.

The Singapore company is attempting to get this wood tracking method adopted by the federal government, which pledged during its last election campaign to crack down on illegal timber imports.

About 10% of the Australian imported wood market is also flooded with illegally traded timber, which has been cut down outside designated logging areas, or outside agreed environmental controls.

This new technology has the ability to change the global forestry trade by precisely identifying the source of each log in a batch shipped through a customs point.

"It is the same type of analysis applied to human DNA for criminal fingerprinting," Professor Lowe says.

Up to eight PhD students and three postdoctoral researchers from the University of Adelaide are working on forest-related projects in different parts of the world.

These projects include collecting samples from up to 1000 tree species in Papua New Guinea for DNA bar coding; analysing both cleared and intact forests in Costa Rica to determine their respective seed pool diversity; and looking at the evolutionary history of the 20 most important tree species across Central and South America to develop conservation guidelines.

The latter project involves constructing a genetic map of tree species in Latin America and interpreting their evolutionary history.

"Major geological changes, such as the meeting of North and South America following the break up of Gondwana and Laurasia 80 million years ago, the formation of the Panama Isthmus five million years ago, and the rising of the Andes mountain range 10 million years ago have coincided with major climatic changes.

"Forests in these regions have expanded and contracted over this period, with some species dramatically altering their distribution because of those geological and climatic events," Professor Lowe says.

The ACEBB has recently been awarded a $7.5 million Federal Government grant for its research and is currently bidding for an additional $12 million to employ up to 30 scientists to undertake a broad scale ecological and DNA barcoding survey across Australia.

This ambitious project will involve DNA barcoding about 1500 ecological sites across Australia, from sparse woodland through to dense rainforest, to develop conservation strategies for those ecosystems in decline.

Professor Lowe says the preservation of forests has to be a global endeavour, requiring a group effort.

While it is difficult to attract goodwill across all nations for these projects, many countries really value their forestry assets, particularly if they are strongly linked to tourism.

He says the most obvious way forward is a system which places an economic value on forests and the services they provide.

"We need to start operating within an economic framework by providing carbon and biodiversity credits for forests and valuing the ecosystem services these habitats provide, while also emphasising their ecotourism potential and their critical value to the whole ecosystem.

"How much would it cost to purify the air and water that forests do naturally? Billions of dollars," he argues.

"I would hope that 2011 - being the International Year of Forests - will focus the world's attention on this area, attracting more funding and awareness of the need to preserve them," Professor Lowe says.

Marine forests under threat from urban catchments

While most people think of forests as 'above ground' habitats, the marine environment hosts one of the most dynamic and productive ecosystems on earth.

Kelp forests provide a unique, three-dimensional habitat for marine organisms, as well as regulating many ecological processes.

Marine biologist Associate Professor Sean Connell is overseeing a project at the University of Adelaide to halt the erosion of kelp forests closer to home - South Australia's coastline.

Stormwater and wastewater discharge, overharvesting and global warming have directly led to the loss of up to 70% of kelp forests off Adelaide's metropolitan coastline since urbanisation.

The loss of the brown algae, which is an important habitat for fish and other marine organisms, has implications for the whole marine food chain in St Vincent's Gulf.

Dr Connell says the world's longest east-west coastline runs through South Australia and is a global 'hot spot' for marine biodiversity.

"This coast faces the Southern Ocean and is home to the Great Australian Bight, which has 120 islands, two massive gulfs, and an astonishing diversity of marine life," he says.

"But run-offs from urban catchments have had a substantial influence in what we see under water. Up to 70% of the algae canopy has disappeared."

Thanks to a collaborative effort between University of Adelaide scientists and the South Australian Government, however, research is being undertaken to find out how to bring these forests back to life.

Initiatives to reduce the flow of Adelaide's stormwater and wastewater out into the ocean will see marked improvements in marine nutrient levels, allowing kelp forests to re-establish.

"We are bringing back kelp forests through improving water quality and reducing nitrogen levels," Dr Connell says. "This is a world-class example of how research and management can reverse the loss of our kelp forests, which are so critical to our marine ecosystem."

Postdoctoral researcher Daniel Gorman, who has a PhD from the University of Adelaide, is currently working off the coast of Brittany in France, developing a predictive model of kelp forest distribution.

"These kelp forests along Brittany's coastline are extremely productive habitats that support high levels of biodiversity," he says.

Dr Gorman's work with the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea will provide more accurate information to map the distribution of kelp forests within the world's oceans.

"There is increasing concern that these sub-tidal forests are disappearing along the world's urban coastlines," Dr Gorman says. "By developing some cost-effective programs, we can monitor the influence of environmental factors on kelp and manage the potential impacts before loss occurs.

"The objective is to develop a broad-scale model for predicting forest distribution which can be tailored to a range of locations, regions and biological communities."

Marine ecologist Dr Andrew Irving completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide and has since worked in the USA, the Galapagos Archipelago, Italy and Croatia to help rehabilitate degraded coastal environments.

In 2008, while in Italy, Dr Irving researched declining underwater forests of the seaweed Cystoseira barbata, which provides an important habitat for Mediterranean marine life.

"Elevated sedimentation is one of the biggest threats to seaweed forests, so if we can combine reductions in sedimentation along the coastline with transplants of cultured juvenile seaweed, that will go a long way towards helping to restore the lost forests," Dr Irving said.

Malaysian scientist a green trailblazer

When it comes to saving the world's forests, Malaysian scientist Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor has probably done more than any other University of Adelaide graduate in the past 50 years.

The Colombo Plan scholar, who obtained a Bachelor of Science (Forestry) in 1964, is internationally renowned for his research work in tropical forests, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.

Since the late 1960s, when he oversaw Malaysia's first ever national forest inventory and was later appointed the Director-General of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), Dr Salleh has campaigned tirelessly for the conservation of forests, winning numerous awards along the way.

"Forests are amazing places. They are peaceful, safe, pristine, uplifting, and so essential to our ecosystems and our lives," he says.

Dr Salleh's major contributions to forestry management include his role in creating a number of national parks in Malaysia; development of national policy on land use and forest conservation; and making governments accountable for actions that are not environmentally friendly or sustainable.

In a career spanning more than four decades, he developed FRIM to become the top tropical forest research organisation in the world, winning various awards, including the National Science Award.

In the 100-year history of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (the global umbrella organisation for world forestry research), Dr Salleh was the first president from outside USA and Europe. Dr Salleh was also instrumental in forming the Asia Pacific Association of Forestry Research Institutions (APAFRI), and was a member of numerous boards and committees of various global organisations.

Even in retirement he continues to consult on forestry management and the environment and heads up Malaysia's only approved private contract research company, TropBio Research Sdn Bhd.

"There are so many challenges facing the forestry industry, particularly with new issues of climate change and loss of biodiversity," he says.

"It's important that we conserve our natural heritage in its pristine state and one of the most effective ways we can do this is to ban the production of all forms of greenhouse gases and plastic.

"We must also phase out logging of our natural forests because they have greater value as water catchments and for conserving our biodiversity.

"As for our long-term timber needs, trees can be grown as plantations and research by FRIM has shown that rubber wood and oil palm trunks are good timber substitutes, as well as being fast-growing tree species " he says. ■

Professor Andrew Lowe

Professor Andrew Lowe
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Dr Daniel Gorman pictured off the coast of Brittany in France.

Dr Daniel Gorman pictured off the coast of Brittany in France.
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An example from Adelaide’s coastline of a healthy marine habitat.

An example from Adelaide's coastline of a healthy marine habitat.
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An example from Adelaide’s coastline of a severely eroded marine habitat.

An example from Adelaide's coastline of a severely eroded marine habitat.
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Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor.
Photo courtesy of <i>The Star</i>, Malaysia

Tan Sri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor.
Photo courtesy of The Star, Malaysia

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