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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Using intraspecific molecular and phenotypic variation to promote multi-functionality of reforestation during climate change – A review of tropical forest case studies in South-east Asia

Grady, Kevin C.; Axelsson, Petter


The study of intraspecific genetic variation in plant traits for use in tropical forest restoration has broad potential for increasing our ability to achieve multi-functional objectives during this era of climate change. Developing seed-sourcing guidelines that optimize phenotypic characteristics best suited to a particular planting site as well as to future conditions imposed by environmental change could be useful for effective reforestation. Because evolution operates differently across tree species, this is an especially cumbersome task in tropical forests that contain thousands of species. Partially due to this high plant diversity, research and application of intraspecific variation in genetics, plant traits, and plant function in tropical forests wane far behind less diverse forest biomes. To examine the potential for improving reforestation efforts in tropical forests by considering intraspecific variation in plant traits and functions, we review the state of knowledge on intraspecific variation in South-east Asia as a case study. We focus on the dipterocarp family (Dipterocarpaceae), a highly diverse family of 16 genera with approximately 695 known species that often dominate lowland tropical rainforests of South-east Asia with many of these forests in a degraded state and in need of restoration. We found that there is research accumulating to understand genetic variation in approximately 10% of these 695 species. Intraspecific molecular variation exists at different spatial scales among species with 74% of species having moderate to high population differentiation (Fst > 0.10) and 92% of species with evidence of fine-scale genetic structure. Although this suggests a high potential for trait variation, few studies associated molecular with phenotypic variation. Seventeen tree species across 11 studies revealed intraspecific variation in traits or functions. Research indicates that intraspecific variation in growth may vary two-fold and drought tolerance four-fold among genotypes highlighting the possibility to pre-adapt trees to climate change during reforestation and to use intraspecific variation to promote the use of native species in commercial forestry. Our review presents opportunities and ideas for developing seed-sourcing guidelines to take advantage of intraspecific variation in traits and function by identifying how to locate this variation, which species would benefit, and how to test for trait variation. We also highlight an emerging area of research on local adaptation, common garden studies, and adaptive drought conditioning to improve reforestation during climate change.


tropical forest restoration; climate pre-adaptation; assisted migration; local adaptation; fine-scale genetic structure; seed source guidelines; “climate-adjusted” provenancing

Published in

CABI Reviews: Perspectives In Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition And Natural Resources
2023, Volume: 2023, number: 2023