Climate change causes an increase in diseases affecting our iconic oak trees, but a pioneering project is to investigate the role of beneficial microbes in fighting diseases that affect our native oak trees.
The FUTURE OAK project, comprising scientists at Bangor University, Aberystwyth University, Forest Research and Sylva Foundation, will study how oak microbiomes are affected by environmental change and disease.
The UK is home to around 170 million oak trees, and more ancient oak trees than the rest of Europe combined. Native oak support over 2000 species of insects, birds, mammals, and fungi, but climate change, human activity, and outbreaks of tree disease are affecting the health of our forests. Acute Oak Decline (or AOD) poses a significant threat to our native oak trees. Trees with AOD are weakened by environmental stresses, like drought, and several different bacteria cause the inner bark tissue to rot. Bark-boring beetles also feed on the inner bark of weakened trees, further increasing bacterial activity. Eventually, the outer bark cracks, releasing fluid from the rotting inner tissue and causing the distinctive stem ‘bleeds’ that are observed on trees affected by AOD.
Like humans, trees have trillions of microbes living on and inside them. This collection of microbes and the part of the plant where they are active is called the ‘microbiome’. Microbiomes are important for plant and animal health – they provide nutrients for growth, regulate immune systems, and protect against pathogens. Beneficial microbes in a tree’s microbiome are essential for fighting diseases.
Prof. James McDonald, the project leader explained:
“The FUTURE OAK project will analyse hundreds of native oaks across Britain to understand which microbes promote health and fight diseases. We’ll then test the ability of these microbes to suppress bacteria which cause disease bacteria. This will help us to develop biocontrol treatments for the oak microbiome, to promote healthier trees and suppress the symptoms of AOD. Working with forest managers, we’ll seek to understand how microbiomes fit with established understandings of tree health, and how our research can help.”
Prof McDonald added:
“We are delighted to receive funding for this project, and look forward to working with land-owners and forest managers to safeguard our iconic oaks and the ecosystems they provide for future generations.”
Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence, said:
“It is vital we do all we can to protect our oak trees for future generations. The FUTURE OAK research project will play an important role in finding solutions to make this iconic tree species more resilient. This project is supported by Action Oak – a pioneering, collaborative partnership which is raising funds for ambitious research projects such as FUTURE OAK.”
Dr Sandra Denman, Senior Forest Pathologist at Forest Research said:
‘We are very excited to be part of this pioneering work aimed at helping our oak trees' resilience’.
The research is supported by £1.3M of funding from the Bacterial Plant Diseases programme funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Defra and Scottish Government and is also supported by Action Oak.