SPUR 2021: Illuminating how genetics and environment influence aspen drought tolerance and response to climate change


The future of western US forests in a rapidly changing climate hinges around how trees can survive climate stress, like drought. This research project aims to determine how aspen genetics (genotype) or environment (phenotype) influence drought tolerance in southwestern US aspen forests. Since droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity for these forests under climate change, it is critical to understand which aspen trees will best survive future drought events. Aspen is a widely distributed tree species across North America and is composed of numerous locally-adapted populations. We will investigate this local drought adaptation by determining if an aspen population’s drought tolerance is due to its genetics or its environment. If the same level of drought tolerance exists in the population under a different environment, then drought tolerance is due to the genetics of the population.

We will determine if the drought tolerance of aspen trees from natural populations across the Intermountain West US is due to genetics or environment. In 2019, aspen were propagated from roots collections from 5 natural populations in Utah and Colorado. In 2020, the propagules were planted into an experimental garden on the University of Utah campus. In spring/summer 2021, the common garden will undergo a drought treatment, and physiological and morphological traits relevant to drought tolerance (i.e. leaf size, water conductivity through the wood tissue, photosynthesis, etc.) will be measured. This research project will consist of both garden and laboratory components to collect, process and analyze samples, and measure various morphological and physiological traits on the aspen trees.

Student Role

The student’s role in this study will be highly dynamic and time will be spent across a wide range of tasks. Participation with this project will mostly entail assisting a graduate student with both garden and laboratory work as detailed below. However, the student will be expected to select and investigate an independent research project using the data collected for this project. Garden work for this project will take place at the Biology Growth Site located near Fort Douglas on the University of Utah campus. In the garden, the student will help with weeding the garden beds, collection of leaf and wood samples for laboratory analyses, and assist with morphological and physiological trait measurements. Laboratory work for this project will consist of processing collected leaf and wood samples, measuring certain morphological and physiological traits in the laboratory, and managing/entering/analyzing datasets. The student will also be expected to participate in bi-weekly lab meetings throughout the summer and to attend all SPUR-required activities. The student will be expected to work 35-40 hours per week.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Participation in this research project will provide an excellent opportunity for any student interested in pursuing a research career, but especially for students interested in ecology or forest ecophysiology research. The student will become familiar with common forest ecology and physiology methods and techniques, using state-of-the-art technology for certain methods. Exposure to this research will afford a familiarity with climate change-related problems affecting aspen forests in the southwest. In addition, the student will also gain critical skills in science communication. The student will learn how to effectively collaborate with others, and to communicate their research through bi-weekly lab meetings, the SPUR bi-weekly update meetings, presentation of research at the Summer Symposium, and publication through the Undergraduate Research Journal. The student will also gain important skills as an independent researcher. The student will be able to develop an independent research question and answer that question by collecting and analyzing their own data. By the end of the summer, the student should feel like a more confident scientific researcher and will have gained critical methods, analytical and communication skills that will be crucial for any future career.

Remote Contingency Plan

As a contingency plan, the student can still be involved in the above project but instead of making measurements directly on the research garden, the student will be assisting remotely with the collection and analysis of project data. In particular, the student will help with processing and measuring (done remotely via computer) tree-ring data from the 5 aspen populations and also plant physiology and growth measurements taken by the graduate student. This will involve learning additional skills of image analysis, data analysis, and statistics.

William Anderegg
Assistant Professor

School of Biological Sciences
College of Science

As mentors, the PI and project graduate student will strive to assist the student throughout the course of the summer with project development. We will help the student develop an independent research question, collect necessary data for the project, and properly analyze the collected data. We will also have bi-weekly meetings during the summer to help the student with project development and to prepare for the bi-weekly SPUR update meetings. The student will also be able to establish regular one-on-one meetings with both the PI and the graduate student on a more flexible, needs-based schedule for support project development throughout the summer. Work in the lab is collaborative, so the student will also be able to get involved with other members of the lab group for advice, project help, and participation on other projects that might be of interest. At the end of the summer, we will provide resources and assistance for poster development and poster presentation, allowing for numerous practice presentations to provide appropriate feedback to the student. If the student is eligible and choses to continue work into Fall 2021, we will provide assistance and support for submitting a follow-up (e.g. UROP) proposal.