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'Mini poplar gardens' pair research and outreach

Photo of Jill Hamilton

Jill Hamilton

Jill Hamilton, NDSU assistant professor of biological sciences, is participating in a new garden-based research network, funded by the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research program.

In collaboration with ArbNet, Hamilton and colleagues at Virginia Tech, University of Vermont and University of Maryland have recruited universities and arboreta nationwide to plant “mini” common garden experiments of black cottonwood, balsam poplar and their hybrids as part of a new garden-based research network.

The goal of the mini poplar network is to pair scientific research with community outreach and education. Mini gardens of clonal poplars are being planted at 18 arboreta and university campuses across the United States. Each mini garden will be composed of a replicated set of the same 50 plants, selected to maximize genetic and native environmental variation in poplars. Researchers will use full-genome sequencing and spatial-environmental modeling to disentangle the impact genetic variation, ancestry and environment have on poplar performance across a range of habitats.

Outreach for the program will focus on developing middle school curriculums, bringing students to the gardens for hands-on data collection and synthesis across sites to illustrate the principles of adaptation and climate change.

“Populations of temperate and boreal forest tree species are usually genetically adapted to their local environment, which enables them to maximize growth while minimizing risk of frost damage,” Hamilton said. “However, climate change is decoupling seasonal climate cues from these evolutionary adaptations.”

The research leverages the natural hybrid zone between black cottonwood and balsam poplar to understand how hybridization between closely related species contributes to adaptation, and how it might impact future adaptive capacity under climate change.

“The mini poplar common garden experiments will provide a rich resource for both research and education across the country for many years to come,” said Hamilton.

“This project provides a unique opportunity for ArbNet-accredited arboreta to be involved in collaborative, cutting-edge tree research,” said Sue Paist, ArbNet Coordinator. “We look forward to the results of the research and participating in future scientific collaborations with our international community of arboreta.”

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