Professor digs up dirt on whitebark pines

Chelsea Langevin
Copy editor

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust awarded Linfield a $15,000 grant in March to fund a professor’s research of whitebark pine trees.
John Syring, assistant professor of plant systematics, will head the research project, collaborating with his wife, Lynda Syring, who is a teacher at McMinnville High School, as well as with Linfield biology students, he said.
The Murdock Trust provides grants and enrichment programs to non-profit organizations. The Partners in Science Program of the Trust works to provide research opportunities between teachers and researchers to promote inquiry-based methods when teaching science, according to a press release.
The whitebark pine tree is native to the Pacific Northwest, with a range stretching from California to British Columbia to Alberta, Canada, Syring said.
It is important to study this particular species because it is severely threatened in its environment, Syring said.
As a high-altitude species, whitebark pines struggle to survive the damaging effects of global warming. The species must also ward off pine beetles and whitepine blister rust, Syring said.
“Whitepine blister rust is a fungal pathogen that not only attacks whitebark pine trees, but also other types of pines,” Syring said.
This foreign fungal pathogen was thought to be introduced first in Vancouver, B.C., in the 1900s, which has spread through the whitebark pine species in addition to its close relatives, he said.
“The key is that other species have some resistance to the disease, and whitebark pine has essentially none,” Syring said.
Through the molecular research the grant will fund, Syring said he hopes to determine the genetic structure of the whitebark pine to detect the diversity of the population. With this information, other researchers will be able to breed resistance strains that will eventually maintain the population.
Because Syring said researchers do not know where to locate populations of high and low diversity, he makes educated guesses when researching.
“Essentially, we are grabbing individuals at random to try to breed for resistance,” Syring said.
With its outreach to McMinnville High School, the research is a way for Linfield to connect with the community and could also serve as a recruitment tool for the college, Syring said.
Several Linfield students have already applied to join the research project, Syring said.
Senior Alicia Zook, a biology major and chemistry minor, has worked with Syring since June on the project and said it is a great opportunity to be involved in the biology department. Zook said she credits her recent acceptance to the Oregon State University graduate program to her research experience at Linfield. Because Linfield is a small, private institution, professors and students have a rare opportunity to work together, Zook said.
“I feel like this is an opportunity that maybe other students at larger schools may not have gotten,” Zook said.
After the research is completed, Zook said she expects the project to enhance Linfield’s biology department’s reputation.
Although Zook said she will not continue the research because she is graduating this year, she is glad to have been a part of the project.

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