About Forest Health Research

As demonstrated powerfully by recent outbreaks of tree pests and diseases such as ash die-back, oak processionary moth, and phytophthora, current forestry and woodland management practices leave us vulnerable to catastrophic landscape change and economic losses. BIFoR will address tree defence, susceptibility and resistance under current and future climate, using discovery tools drawn from biomedical science and, from a broader ‘complex systems’ perspective, innovative approaches to manage risks to forest health. Laboratory based research will tackle these increasingly important issues. 


The Wolfson Advanced Glasshouses at the University of Birmingham offer state-of-the-art facilities for accelerating research into a wide range of areas including food security, sustainability and climate change. They provide a fully controlled experimental environment on campus, complementing the outdoor BIFoR  FACE experiment. The Glasshouses connect colleagues working across biology, chemical sciences, ecology, water and atmospheric sciences.  

In 2020, several new staff (Prof. Robert Jackson, Dr Florian Busch, Dr Megan McDonald, Dr Laura Graham, Dr Adriane Esquivel Muelbert, Dr Mojgan Rabiey) have been recruited to key positions, expanding our Forest Health Research Team  Three new postdoctoral posts have been advertised as well as a post for a technician.  

A new research project funded by Bacterial Plant Diseases call examining Pseudomonas bacterial pathogens of Prunus (Cherry Trees) started in September 2020, with Dr Mojgan Rabiey and Prof.. Rob Jackson. This collaboration with NIAB will examine how bacterial pathogens evolve on wild, ornamental and sweet cherry varieties and try to understand how we can improve management and control of these diseases. 

Despite 2020’s challenges due to the COVID pandemic, colleagues in BIFoR have implemented robust health and safety procedures to ensure safe working practice, especially in the outdoor sites. 

Funding from the JABBS Foundation has enabled two postdoctoral research fellows, Dr Rosa Sanchez-Lucas (working with Dr Estrella Luna-Diez) and Dr Thomas Welch  (working with Dr Graeme Kettles), to carry out research projects examining defence  mechanisms in oak that can help to protect the tree from pathogen infection. One aim has been to establish and optimise protocols for performing an oak seedling diversity panel screen against the Acute Oak Decline (AOD) bacterial complex and the oak powdery mildew (PM) fungus.

A new protocol for generating stem infections of oak seedlings with AOD bacteria and a medium-throughput image analysis platform for the quantification of foliar disease symptoms induced by the PM fungus on oak leaves has been developed. These will allow experiments to be done that can identify two main components of defence: priming of resistance; and identification of resistance alleles that help fight off infections by pathogens.

Publications are in-train (Sanchez-Lucas et al., Disentangling the effect of elevated CO2 in growth and resistance mechanisms against powdery mildew in oak seedlings; Mayoral et al., Elevated CO2 does not improve the regeneration of a mature oak woodland subjected to biotic stress).   BIFoR continues to support the Action Oak (AO) initiative including via a very well attended AO session at the BIFoR conference in January 2020.

The BIFoR annual meeting 2021 will have a focus on pest and diseases, but also reflects the broader scope of the institutes research. We are  delighted to have four high profile external speakers covering disease resistance and genomics in trees (Prof. Richard Buggs, RBG Kew), ecological impact of tree diseases and policy implications (Dr Ruth Mitchell, James Hutton Institute), insights to the resilience of landowners post-Brexit (Anthony Geddes, Confor) and How to talk trees with non-experts (Jon Drori).

Estrella Luna Diez and colleagues in lab

Dr Luna-Diez is continues to work on a project aiming to understand the impact of mixed species forests in the resistance of ash trees to ash dieback disease. Funded by Gatsby and a panel of scientific Societies Dr Luna-Diez led a summer project where 5 undergraduate students surveyed over 7,000 trees in the Norbury Estate. This project has identified tree species that drive enhanced resistance and susceptibility to the disease. These results could inform planting strategies to increase resilience of future forests. She will present early results at the BIFoR Annual Meeting 2021 

mixed forest

Dr Luna-Diez & Dr Hayward have have also recently started to supervise a new PhD student, Mark Raw. Mark will present a poster at the BIFoR Annual Meeting 2021. 

Thumbnail Mark Raw

  The transgenerational impact of elevated CO2 on oak progeny growth and development

Dr Kettles received funding from the British Society of Plant Pathology (BSPP) and the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) to initiate projects aimed at developing tools to understand tree disease resistance, and investigate the microbial communities (microbiomes) that inhabit oak trees. These projects, started by two undergraduate summer students (Adriana Iamandi and Chris Griffin) and have since been continued back in the lab at the Edgbaston campus.

In 2019 Dr Kettles and Dr Luna-Diez, organised the 'Thinking Higher' conference, which brought together over 80 international researchers to exchange the latest knowledge across plant pathology and tree research.  The event received funding from the British Society for Plant Pathology, The Office for Cultural and Scientific Affairs of the Spanish Embassy in the UK, The Society for Applied Microbiology and the Birmingham International Engagement Fund. Further to the conference a new consortium was set up, the 'Priming in Trees Consortium

Biosphere-Atmosphere Interactions News

Within the Biosphere-Atmosphere exchange group, led by Tom Pugh, two major publications have originated from the TreeMort project, one describing the role of young forest stands in the global carbon sink, published in PNAS, and another quantifying the contribution of stand-replacing forest disturbances to carbon turnover across global forests, published in Nature Geoscience. Data behind these papers is fully available via dataguru.lu.se. Two major data compilation activities are nearing completion. Daijun Liu has assembled a dataset of tree functional traits related to drought tolerance for more than 10,000 species, whilst Adriane Esquivel Muelbert has created a global dataset of tree growth and mortality rates based on forest inventories for several million trees. Both these efforts are now moving forward into analysis, with the ultimate aim of enabling more accurate projections of tree mortality rates at continental-to-global scale. Nezha Acil presented a first analysis of an enormous computational effort to quantify the characteristics of every standreplacing disturbance event across the globe over 2000-2018, and is continuing to refine these calculations with the aim of attributing the drivers of these disturbances. Both Nezha and Adriane have engaged in supervising student volunteers within their projects. Sijeh Asuk has spent several months in the field establishing a run of new forest plots in the Cross River national park in Nigeria, with the aim of studying the phenology of food-producing trees over the next 2 years. In addition, three more PhD students have joined the group in 2019: Hector Carmargo working on ozone effects on crop yields, with a focus on China. Aleksandra Kulawska working on effects of permafrost thaw on boreal forest productivity and tree mortality. Lavinia Georgescu working on interactions between droughts and tree mortality.

Tom Pugh has also become a co-leader of the International Tree Mortality Network, which was launched at the IUFRO meeting in October.

The network aims to bring together the global ecological, forestry, remotesensing and Earth-system science communities to:

  • Quantify trends in tree mortality rates globally
  • Attribute the causes of tree mortality
  • Develop the capability to accurately predict tree mortality trend

Entomology Research at the BIFoR FACE facility

Forests are a key economic and ecological resource worldwide, as well as a major carbon sink. Understanding the response of these habitats to climate change is therefore of great importance. A key impact of elevated atmospheric CO2 (eCO2 ) will be to reduce the nutritional value of plants because of increased carbon, relative to nitrogen, content. Leaf litter can be used as a non destructive sampling resource to determine impacts on insect herbivory and broader implications on ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling.  Dr Scott Hayward, is collaborating with the University of Lund to investigate. More information is available from recent posters at the BIFoR annual meeting and Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting. Dr Scott Hayward is also supervising research by PhD student Liam Crowley (Poster 2021,  Podcast interview and Podcast called Entocast)

GenRes Bridge - Genetic resources for a food-secure and forested Europe 

GenRes Bridge aims to strengthen conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources by accelerating collaborative efforts and widening capacities in plant,forest and animal domains. University of Birmingham's Prof Nigel Maxted and Jade Phillips are partners http://www.genresbridge.eu/about-us/partners/. Jade's poster from the BIFoR fourth annual meeting is available to read online.