Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Forest Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Oliver Gailing


Forest trees, like oaks, rely on high levels of genetic variation to adapt to varying environmental conditions. Thus, genetic variation and its distribution are important for the long-term survival and adaptability of oak populations. Climate change is projected to lead to increased drought and fire events as well as a northward migration of tree species, including oaks. Additionally, decline in oak regeneration has become increasingly concerning since it may lead to decreased gene flow and increased inbreeding levels. This will in turn lead to lowered levels of genetic diversity, negatively affecting the growth and survival of populations. At the same time, populations at the species’ distribution edge, like those in this study, could possess important stores of genetic diversity and adaptive potential, while also being vulnerable to climatic or anthropogenic changes. A survey of the level and distribution of genetic variation and identification of potentially adaptive genes is needed since adaptive genetic variation is essential for their long-term survival.

Oaks possess a remarkable characteristic in that they maintain their species identity and specific environmental adaptations despite their propensity to hybridize. Thus, in the face of interspecific gene flow, some areas of the genome remain differentiated due to selection. This characteristic allows the study of local environmental adaptation through genetic variation analyses. Furthermore, using genic markers with known putative functions makes it possible to link those differentiated markers to potential adaptive traits (e.g., flowering time, drought stress tolerance). Demographic processes like gene flow and genetic drift also play an important role in how genes (including adaptive genes) are maintained or spread. These processes are influenced by disturbances, both natural and anthropogenic. An examination of how genetic variation is geographically distributed can display how these genetic processes and geographical disturbances influence genetic variation patterns. For example, the spatial clustering of closely related trees could promote inbreeding with associated negative effects (inbreeding depression), if gene flow is limited. In turn this can have negative consequences for a species’ ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. In contrast, interspecific hybridization may also allow the transfer of genes between species that increase their adaptive potential in a changing environment.

I have studied the ecologically divergent, interfertile red oaks, Quercus rubra and Q. ellipsoidalis, to identify genes with potential roles in adaptation to abiotic stress through traits such as drought tolerance and flowering time, and to assess the level and distribution of genetic variation. I found evidence for moderate gene flow between the two species and low interspecific genetic differences at most genetic markers (Lind and Gailing 2013). However, the screening of genic markers with potential roles in phenology and drought tolerance led to the identification of a CONSTANS-like (COL) gene, a candidate gene for flowering time and growth. This marker, located in the coding region of the gene, was highly differentiated between the two species in multiple geographical areas, despite interspecific gene flow, and may play a role in reproductive isolation and adaptive divergence between the two species (Lind-Riehl et al. 2014). Since climate change could result in a northward migration of trees species like oaks, this gene could be important in maintaining species identity despite increased contact zones between species (e.g., increased gene flow). Finally I examined differences in spatial genetic structure (SGS) and genetic variation between species and populations subjected to different management strategies and natural disturbances. Diverse management activities combined with various natural disturbances as well as species specific life history traits influenced SGS patterns and inbreeding levels (Lind-Riehl and Gailing submitted).