Could Tree Genetics be More Interesting than Astrophysics?

A talk given by Dr. Jim Proven, a conservation genetics lecturer from Aberwystwyth University began his presentation by declaring Tom Baker was the greatest doctor from the popular BBC show Doctor Who. He explained that before he began his degree studying biochemistry, he originally wanted to be an astrophysicist  – a very different and dramatic change in degree topics.

Upon graduating with a PhD focused on potato genetics, he  carried out three years of research on the genetic diversity of Scots pine to find no significant results amongst the species. Disheartened with his findings he then began to conduct research in other areas, such as seaweed.

After accepting that his research on the Scots pine had no relevance or meaning to others, he was surprised to have been offered a research position by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency looking at the distribution of Juniper trees.

It was originally thought that the Northern Irish tree populations would be genetically different from the populations found in Britain as the two islands have been separated from one another since 16,000 BC and have since undergone recolonisation after dramatic changes in the climate.

Dr. Proven found that the populations of Juniper in Northern Ireland could be characterised by three different genotypes. He found that these geneotypes were geographically localised and some were rarer than others. The separation of genotypes reduces the chance of gene flow between the species which results in the fragmentation of populations. This alarming level of gene flow was due to the low production of berries across the species.


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Photo Credit –

Impressed with his findings, the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency funded Dr. Proven to conduct research on the Ash populations of Northern Ireland. The study was designed to look into the success rates of the diversification of Ash when under environmental stress.

The biggest threat to Ash populations is a fungus named Ash Dieback. When infected with this fungus, an Ash tree would lose its leaves and show an extensive cutback of its shoots. Reported cases of infected populations are increasing but specimens that have a resistance to the infection have also been found.

The populations of Ash found by Dr. Proven in Northern Ireland were closely related, this is because, in angiosperms, genetic information is maternally passed down which could suggest that the trees have derived from the same parent. The low genetic variability within these populations make them more susceptible to the disease. However Dr. Proven is in the middle of genetically mapping the species across the whole of Northern Ireland. This is so that if any specimens are resistant to the fungus, they can be selectively bred to increase the chance of survival during a Ash Dieback outbreak.


This seminar confirmed and fueled more of my interest for plants and encouraged me to look for volunteering opportunities that involve collecting data in the field. I found it very inspiring that he admitted that the career he has perused was not the one he originally intended on – but doesn’t mean I shouldn’t prepare and have career path.





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