The mountain pine beetle has wreaked havoc in North America, across forests from the American Southwest to British Columbia and Alberta, with the potential to spread all the way to the Atlantic coast. Millions of acres of forest have been lost, with severe economic and ecological impacts from a beetle outbreak ten times larger than previous outbreaks.
Because of its importance and impact on forestry, the mountain pine beetle's genome has been recently sequenced. Using this new resource, authors Janes, et.al. examined how the pine beetle could undergo such rapid habitat range expansion, and if population genetics and the cataloguing of genome wide mutations could shed any light on possible molecular causes of the outbreak. From beetles collected at 27 sites in Alberta and British Columbia, they looked for any patterns amongst their catalog of 1536 mutations (single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs).
They found several candidate genetic markers and conclude that the mountain pine beetle may have been able to spread by adjusting its cellular and metabolic functions to better withstand cooler climates and facilitate a larger geographic dispersal area. Such information could give important new clues for the forestry industry to help curb the current devastation of North American forests from this pest.