Future forests, moss analyst

Tuesday 3rd April 2012
Copyright offence apology. Professor  Reski, Chair for Plant Biotechnology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, ALSO Internal Senior Fellow a Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies (FRIAS), School of Life Sciences - LifeNet was the author of the photo previously on this page, which was attributed and as he was also the researcher mentioned in the text, it seemed that due attribution had been made. However, on complaints over the copyright from the University and in order not to breach that, this photo is removed and replaced by one of lichen on a birch tree at the south-east shore of Loch Maree in Scotland, courtesy of Shandchems photostream . Lichen could be an excellent substitute for peat moss as another delicate indicator of air purity. Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14508691@N08/with/4032381033/

Tree research throughout Europe and the UK finds Scottish sites being locations for discovering which trees will best suit a warmer climate change environments, while in Germany Spain, France, Italy and Ireland a consortium MOSSCLON of five universities and five SMEs has been granted €3.5mfor three years for its Eco-Innovation. Perhaps Scotland should research the viability of lichen air testers.

Forest Research, a part of the UK Forestry Commission is taking part in international research to identify alternative tree species that could be planted in the future climate.  Funded by the EU, REINFFORCE is to carry out research trials of 30 tree species at 37 locations on the west Atlantic from the Azores in Portugal to the Isle of Mull in Argyll and the Isles.

There are three trial sites in western Britain: The Isle of Mull (above) in Scotland; Crychan (near Llandovery) in Wales and Westonbirt, the National Arboretum in England.

Alongside the REINFFORCE trials, there are two Forest Research trials in eastern Britain, one at Crowthorne Forest in Berkshire, a part of Swinley Forest affected by forest fires in May 2011, and the other (belownear Peebles in Scotland.

Forest Research is working alongside 11 other European partners to identify species that are likely to be more resilient to pests, diseases and most likely to thrive in the warmer climates predicted as a result of climate change.

The impact of recurrent ice ages has left the British Isles with only a small number of native tree species, most broadleaf. Oak, beech, ash and birch make up our native broadleaf forests, Scots pine, yew and juniper native conifer forests.  Of these Scots pine is the only native conifer which is used on a wide scale for timber production. So there is a need to identify a wider variety of coniferous species.

For centuries new tree species have been introduced for a variety of purposes and the portfolio of commercial forestry species includes Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, larch, Corsican and lodgepole pines. But increase in the number of tree pests and diseases have affected these species and diseases such as Dothistroma needle blight has damaged Corsican and lodgepole pines, Phytophthora ramorum has caused high mortality to larch and bleeding canker has spread among horse chestnuts.

The REINFFORCE Project is to help identify which alternative tree species can be planted here with the changing climate and to discover if the existing species are at risk of pests and diseases.

Dr Hugh Williams, (right)  head of operations at Forest Research, says: ‘Despite the uncertainties surroundingclimate change, it is expected to have a significant impact on our forests over this century.  In southern and eastern Britain hotter, drier summers may lead to greater risk of drought stress. Conversely a warming climate may make it easier to grow species that were previously thought to be too tender for southern and western Britain.’

The 30 tree species to be planted in the research include familiar trees like English oak, Scots pine, silver birch and sweet chestnut as well as less usual species such as Atlas cedar and Macedonian, Maritime and Monterey pines.

Each of 37 trial locations will contain the same 30 tree species with three seed provenances (seed sources) for each.  The research is to measure survival, health, height, trunk diameter and form across a wide range of climates and soil types, as well as how the trees respond to climatic variables like temperature and water availability.  The research will then help to decide which forest trees to grow in the future.


Since 1996 the European Union has requested from their member states a continuous monitoring of air pollution, tightened in 2008 with an EU directive to monitor not only nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides but also airborne heavy metals like cadmium, lead and nickel. Existing technologies find this hard to achieve, they are either imprecise or very expensive.

Professor Ralf Reski, Chair for Plant Biotechnology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, (and Internal Senior Fellow a Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies (FRIAS), School of Life Sciences)  with a team of biologists, are part of a consortium “MOSSCLONE” that has been granted €3.5m for three years to develop a novel, precise and inexpensive method to monitor air contamination, especially by heavy metals.

The 10 partners of MOSSCLONE will contribute another approx. €1m from their own resources to this project which is based on the fact that living plants are already in use as biological indicators as they take up and accumulate pollutants.

Mosses are especially well suited as bio-indicators for airborne pollution as they have no roots and a very high surface-to-mass ratio. 

One foreseen innovation in MOSSCLONE is the cultivation of huge amounts of a peat moss under controlled laboratory conditions.

Subsequently, the moss plants  will be inactivated and the surface structures will be transferred to air-permeable bags under fabrication conditions. 

These moss-bags will be displayed in monitoring stations at a variety of different European locations and be assessed with regard to their capability to accumulate pollutants from the air.
"We will combine methods from molecular biology and material sciences with those from ecology and bionics ", says Professor Reski.
The scientists hope that their moss-bags will be used in the whole of Europe as monitors for environmental pollution in the near future. But doubtless other plants such as lichen might prove useful too.
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