Tree microbiome research programme underway

Scion researchers have started a new programme to develop the first ever tree-root-microbiome model.

The programme ‘The tree microbiome project: at the root of climate proofing forests’ is a five-year research programme supported by the 2020 MBIE Endeavour Fund and the Forest Owners Association.

Programme leader Dr Steve A. Wakelin says, “We have a solid understanding of the importance of tree-mycorrhizal (root fungus) associations to environmental adaptation, but the overwhelming majority of root-microbiome associations are still a mystery.

“We need a tree root microbiome model to develop and test how the microbes on, and in, a tree’s tissues can influence its physical properties or phenotype.” The tree microbiome model will be developed for radiata pine, as it is a well-researched and commercially important species that is vital to New Zealand’s economy.

‘Internet of Things’ for trees

The tree microbiome research programme has been encouraged by the large scientific advances made by the human microbiome research programme linking the human gut microbiome to health and wellbeing. Steve suggests that the same logic could apply to trees, i.e., the microbial communities that live on and in trees can have a profound effect on the tree’s growth, physiology, health and ability to adapt to change.

Steve says, “We believe that the tree-root-microbiome can act as an environmental sensor that enables plants to interpret and respond to environmental stimuli.”

The microbes that are intimately connected with the tree-root are a direct connection to the environment and can send the tree important information about the conditions to help the tree adapt as needed. For example, microbes sensing a lack of water in the soil use that information to adapt wood formation rates.


The work undertaken in this programme will create new insights and stimulate more research into the tree-root-microbiome. In the long-term, this could lead to a forest microbiome specifically managed to increase tree productivity and resilience to climate change, increase resistance to disease and understand and control tree physiology and wood formation processes.

Steve concludes, “What we learn in this programme will be applicable to New Zealand’s indigenous forests too, helping us to protect all forests from climate change.”

Collaborators in this programme include Lincoln University (New Zealand), University of Western Sydney (Australia), Woodwell Climate Research Center (USA) and Wright State University (USA).

For more information, contact

Dr Steve A. Wakelin

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