Prospects for evolution in european tree breeding

Aline Fugeray-Scarbel, Laurent Bouffier, Stéphane Lemarié, Leopoldo Sánchez, Ricardo Alia, Chiara Biselli, Joukje Buiteveld, Andrea Carra, Luigi Cattivelli, Arnaud Dowkiw, Luis Fontes, Agostino Fricano, Jean Marc Gion, Jacqueline Grima-Pettenati, Andreas Helmersson, Francisco Lario, Luis Leal, Sven Mutke, Giuseppe Nervo, Torgny PerssonLaura Rosso, Rene Smulders, Arne Steffenrem, Lorenzo Vietto, Matti Haapanen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Genetically improved forest reproductive materials are now widely accessible in many European countries due to decades of continuous breeding efforts. Tree breeding does not only contribute to higher-value end products but allows an increase in the rate of carbon capture and sequestration, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. The usefulness of breeding programmes depends on (i) the relevance of the set of selected traits and their relative weights (growth, drought tolerance, phenology, etc.); (ii) the explicit management of targeted and “neutral” diversity; (iii) the genetic gain achieved; and (iv) the efficiency of transferring diversity and gain to the plantation. Several biological factors limit both operational breeding and mass reproduction. To fully realise the potential of tree breeding, the introduction of new technologies and concepts is pivotal for overcoming these constraints. We reviewed several European breeding programmes, examining their current status and factors that are likely to influence tree breeding in the coming decades. The synthesis was based on case studies developed for the European Union-funded B4EST project, which focused on eight economically important tree species with breeding histories and intensities ranging from low-input breeding (stone pine, Douglas-fir and ash) to more complex programmes (eucalyptus, maritime pine, Norway spruce, poplar, and Scots pine). Tree breeding for these species is managed in a variety of ways due to differences in species’ biology, breeding objectives, and economic value. Most programmes are managed by governmental institutes with full or partial public support because of the relatively late return on investment. Eucalyptus is the only tree species whose breeding is entirely sponsored and managed by a private company. Several new technologies have emerged for both phenotyping and genotyping. They have the potential to speed up breeding processes and make genetic evaluations more accurate, thereby reducing costs and increasing genetic gains per unit of time. In addition, genotyping has allowed the explicit control of genetic diversity in selected populations with great precision. The continuing advances in tree genomics are expected to revolutionise tree breeding by moving it towards genomic-based selection, a perspective that requires new types of skills that are not always available in the institutions hosting the programmes. We therefore recognise the importance of promoting coordination and collaboration between the many groups involved in breeding. Climate change is expected to bring in new pests and diseases and increase the frequency of extreme weather events such as late frosts and prolonged droughts. Such stresses will cause slow growth and mortality, reducing forest productivity and resilience. Most of these threats are difficult to predict, and the time-consuming nature of conventional breeding does not allow for an adequate and timely reaction. We anticipate that most breeding programmes will need to revise their selection criteria and objectives to place greater emphasis on adaptive performance, tolerance to multiple environmental stresses, stability in different environments, and conservation of genetic diversity. Testing breeding materials in a variety of environments, including potentially contrasting climates, will become increasingly important. Climate change may also force the incorporation of new genetic resources that provide new useful adaptations, which may involve the use of new, previously unexplored gene pools or hybridisation, with the enormous challenge of incorporating useful alleles without adding along an unfavourable genetic background. Decision-support tools to help landowners and foresters select the best-performing forest reproductive material in each specific environment could also help reduce the impact of climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-58
Number of pages14
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024


  • Breeding Programmes
  • Breeding Strategies
  • Climate Change
  • Genomic Selection
  • Seed Orchards
  • Tree Breeding


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