Biodiversity 2 min

Detecting tree mutations using a method developed in medical science

PRESS RELEASE - Over the course of their lives, every organism accumulates new mutations, some of which may contribute to the development of genetic diseases or cancer in humans, or to metabolic changes in plants. Detecting these new mutations is therefore essential both in medicine and in biology. Unlike in most animals, the mutations accumulated throughout a plant’s life can be inheritable. Long-lived trees can thus produce new mutations over hundreds, even thousands of years, disseminating them through their seeds, and, as a result, have an impact on genetic diversity. Using oaks as an example, INRAE researchers set out to explore the mutations accumulated throughout the course of a plant's life, with the aid of detection methods originally developed in cancer research in humans. Their results were published in Peer Community Journal.

Published on 28 November 2022

illustration Detecting tree mutations using a method developed in medical science
© Nicolas Bierne

The study of mutations is essential for understanding the evolution and adaptation of species over time. Yet, the mutation process remains understudied, especially in plants. INRAE researchers from the Pays de la Loire, Nouvelle-Aquitaine Bordeaux and French West Indies-French Guiana centres have joined forces to find the best way of detecting somatic[1] mutations in trees.

Applying seven detection methods commonly used in biology and cancer research, they began their analysis by simulating mutations to compare the efficiency of each tool. The results were conclusive: one of the detection methods developed in cancer research was by far the most efficient in plants. They used the same tool to reanalyse DNA sequencing data sets from two old oak trees, on which other mutation tests had already been carried out. Compared to the previously preferred traditional methods for detecting mutations in plants, 3.4 times more mutations were detected as a result.

This study is part of a project[2] aimed at understanding mutation processes in tropical trees. These trees, which are exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation, have been little studied, and an analysis of their somatic mutations will be a major step forward in understanding their genetic diversity. These preliminary studies on oaks, a well-known taxonomic group, will help to establish the most suitable strategy for analysing the genome of large tropical trees in the future.


[1] Refers to all cells in the body except germ cells—sperm and egg cells in humans.

[2] The TREEMUTATION project, funded by the CEBA Laboratory of Excellence (ANR-10-LABX-25-01), which focuses on the mutation process in tropical trees.


Schmitt, Sylvain; Leroy, Thibault; Heuertz, Myriam; Tysklind, Niklas. Somatic mutation detection: a critical evaluation through simulations and reanalyses in oaks. Peer Community Journal, Volume 2 (2022), article no. e68. doi:


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Myriam Heuertz Biodiversity Genes and Communities (BIOGECO)

Niklas Tysklind Ecology of French Guianan Forests (ECOFOG)



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From genes to plant microbiota

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Climate change and risks

Choosing the best seeds to help sessile oaks adapt to future climates

PRESS RELEASE - Planting forests is one way to mitigate climate change. The origin of seeds is crucial to optimize the success of planted trees and their ability to adapt to future climates. INRAE and ONF (French National Forest Office) ran a large-scale study for more than 30 years using a collection of about 100 populations* of sessile oak from all over Europe. Spread over four experimental sites in France, they were looking to identify the best seed sources for the species. Their findings, published in Annals of Forest Science, show that tree populations from regions with a long tradition of forestry have the best combination of ecological and silvicultural traits (survival, growth, shape, phenology). Scientists recommend using about 30 seed sources for planting sessile oaks in France, bringing together the diversity and adaptation needed to respond to climate change.

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