iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry

Genetically improved forest reproductive materials are now widely accessible in many European countries due to decades of continuous breeding efforts. Tree breeding does not only contribute to higher-value end products but allows an increase in the rate of carbon capture and sequestration, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. The usefulness of breeding programmes depends on (i) the relevance of the set of selected traits and their relative weights (growth, drought tolerance, phenology, etc.); (ii) the explicit management of targeted and “neutral” diversity; (iii) the genetic gain achieved; and (iv) the efficiency of transferring diversity and gain to the plantation. Several biological factors limit both operational breeding and mass reproduction. To fully realise the potential of tree breeding, the introduction of new technologies and concepts is pivotal for overcoming these constraints. We reviewed several European breeding programmes, examining their current status and factors that are likely to influence tree breeding in the coming decades. The synthesis was based on case studies developed for the European Union-funded B4EST project, which focused on eight economically important tree species with breeding histories and intensities ranging from low-input breeding (stone pine, Douglas-fir and ash) to more complex programmes (eucalyptus, maritime pine, Norway spruce, poplar, and Scots pine). Tree breeding for these species is managed in a variety of ways due to differences in species’ biology, breeding objectives, and economic value. Most programmes are managed by governmental institutes with full or partial public support because of the relatively late return on investment. Eucalyptus is the only tree species whose breeding is entirely sponsored and managed by a private company. Several new technologies have emerged for both phenotyping and genotyping. They have the potential to speed up breeding processes and make genetic evaluations more accurate, thereby reducing costs and increasing genetic gains per unit of time. In addition, genotyping has allowed the explicit control of genetic diversity in selected populations with great precision. The continuing advances in tree genomics are expected to revolutionise tree breeding by moving it towards genomic-based selection, a perspective that requires new types of skills that are not always available in the institutions hosting the programmes. We therefore recognise the importance of promoting coordination and collaboration between the many groups involved in breeding. Climate change is expected to bring in new pests and diseases and increase the frequency of extreme weather events such as late frosts and prolonged droughts. Such stresses will cause slow growth and mortality, reducing forest productivity and resilience. Most of these threats are difficult to predict, and the time-consuming nature of conventional breeding does not allow for an adequate and timely reaction. We anticipate that most breeding programmes will need to revise their selection criteria and objectives to place greater emphasis on adaptive performance, tolerance to multiple environmental stresses, stability in different environments, and conservation of genetic diversity. Testing breeding materials in a variety of environments, including potentially contrasting climates, will become increasingly important. Climate change may also force the incorporation of new genetic resources that provide new useful adaptations, which may involve the use of new, previously unexplored gene pools or hybridisation, with the enormous challenge of incorporating useful alleles without adding along an unfavourable genetic background. Decision-support tools to help landowners and foresters select the best-performing forest reproductive material in each specific environment could also help reduce the impact of climate change.


Tree Breeding, Breeding Programmes, Breeding Strategies, Climate Change, Seed Orchards, Genomic Selection

Authors’ address

Aline Fugeray-Scarbel 0000-0002-2956-6943
Stéphane Lemarié 0000-0003-1530-3787
Univ. Grenoble Alpes, INRAE, CNRS, Grenoble INP, GAEL, 38000 Grenoble (France)
Laurent Bouffier 0000-0001-7493-5077
INRAE, Univ. Bordeaux, BIOGECO, F-33610 Cestas (France)
Leopoldo Sánchez
UMR BioForA, INRA, 45160, Ardon (France)
Ricardo Alia 0000-0002-9426-0967
Sven Mutke 0000-0002-6365-7128
Institute of Forest Science - ICIFOR-INIA, CSIC, carretera de La Coruña km 7.5, 28040, Madrid (Spain)
Chiara Biselli 0000-0003-0978-6970
Research Centre for Forestry and Wood, Council for Agricultural Research and Economics - CREA-FL, v.le Santa Margherita 80, I-52100 Arezzo (Italy)
Joukje Buiteveld 0000-0003-1892-6760
Marinus JM Smulders 0000-0002-8549-6046
Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen (Netherlands)
Andrea Carra 0000-0002-9736-6775
Giuseppe Nervo 0000-0002-8282-7110
Laura Rosso 0000-0002-2469-7602
Lorenzo Vietto 0000-0003-4489-6227
Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Research Centre for Forestry and Wood, str. Frassineto 35, 15033 Casale Monferrato (Italy)
Luigi Cattivelli 0000-0002-6067-4600
Agostino Fricano 0000-0003-3715-5834
Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics, v. San Protaso 302, 29017 Fiorenzuola d’Arda (Italy)
Arnaud Dowkiw 0000-0003-0477-1091
INRAE, UMR 0588 BioForA, 2163 avenue de la Pomme de Pin, CS 40001 Ardon, 45075 Orléans Cedex 2 (France)
Luis Fontes 0000-0001-7817-3225
Luis Leal
Altri Florestal, 2510-582 Olho Marinho (Portugal)
Jean-Marc Gion 0000-0003-3958-7796
CIRAD UMR AGAP, F-33612 CESTAS Cedex (France)
Jacqueline Grima-Pettenati 0000-0003-4272-9767
Laboratoire de Recherche en Sciences Végétales, Université Toulouse, CNRS, INP, Castanet-Tolosan (France)
Andreas Helmersson 0000-0001-9043-4002
The Forestry Research Institute of Sweden - Skogforsk, Ekebo 2250, 26890 Svalöv (Sweden)
Francisco Lario 0009-0005-2203-0408
TRAGSA, Vivero Maceda, Carretera Maceda - Baldrei, km 2, 32708 Maceda, Galicia (Spain)
Torgny Persson 0000-0002-5873-5777
The Forestry Research Institute of Sweden - Skogforsk, Sävar SE-918 21 (Sweden)
Arne Steffenrem 0000-0001-7116-9151
Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research - NIBIO, Skolegata 22, 7713 Steinkjer (Norway)
Matti Haapanen 0000-0003-3294-501x
Natural Resources Institute Finland - Luke, Helsinki (Finland)

Corresponding author

Matti Haapanen


Fugeray-Scarbel A, Bouffier L, Lemarié S, Sánchez L, Alia R, Biselli C, Buiteveld J, Carra A, Cattivelli L, Dowkiw A, Fontes L, Fricano A, Gion J-M, Grima-Pettenati J, Helmersson A, Lario F, Leal L, Mutke S, Nervo G, Persson T, Rosso L, Smulders MJM, Steffenrem A, Vietto L, Haapanen M (2024). Prospects for evolution in European tree breeding. iForest 17: 45-58. - doi: 10.3832/ifor4544-017

Academic Editor

Marco Borghetti

Paper history

Received: Dec 16, 2023
Accepted: Feb 27, 2024

First online: Mar 06, 2024
Publication Date: Apr 30, 2024
Publication Time: 0.27 months

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