World's largest trees given new hope for preservation
Author: Laura Chalk
A new project will decode genetic make-up of world’s largest trees in order to better understand and protect them.
Along coastal California and Oregon lives the tallest tree on Earth, the coast redwood, reaching 379 feet high.
The largest living thing on Earth by volume is the giant sequoia, which grows on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, also in California. The widest is 31 feet – the length of two cars. The largest weighs 642 tonnes, as much as 107 elephants.
Before commercial logging began in the 1850s, these massive trees grew in abundance throughout California.
Now the two species are under threat by habitat depletion and changing environmental conditions.
Environmentalists have long fought to protect forests, however now it’s time for the next step. “It’s really easy to look for big trees in old forests and protect them,” said Emily Burns, director of science for Save the Redwoods and head investigator for a new project, which will delve deeper into the trees genetic make-up in order to better understand and preserve them. “Something is hidden in the forest that we don’t understand nearly well enough – and that is genetic diversity,” she said, in an interview with USA Today.
Why are scientists embarking on such a task? Genetic diversity acts as insurance against the total loss of an irreplaceable species.
The ambitious plan, announced by Scientists last month, aims to decode the genetic sequences of California’s two most iconic trees.
The US$2.6 million project, a partnership between UC Davis, Johns Hopkins University and the San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League, aims to discover why some tress are more hardy than others. And, if the information gleaned could offer hope for future generations.
Revealing the DNA of the most resilient trees could direct a rescue strategy for the embattled forests. When the project is complete in mid-2018, the team will have the so-called “reference genomes” of the two species.
Scientists can then traverse the forests in search of trees with a vast range of differing genes that enable them to fend off disease, fire, drought, pests and, vitally with climate change taking affect, rising temperatures.
DNA sequencing is a vital tool in better understanding life on earth – from human design and disease to livestock and crop agriculture. But the new project is different because its applying genetics to environmental restoration.
“These long-lived trees must survive where they’re born,” said professor David Neale, who will lead the UC Davis work in the project. “Having the genome sequence allows us to discover the underlying genetic determinants of disease resistance, which will greatly facilitate reforestation efforts. We can now give forest managers modern, rapid genetic tools to identify resistant trees.”
“We have to be thinking about how to set the trees up for success.” Says Burns. “Sequencing is the first high-tech strategy to give us the information we need to do conservation work.”
While the forests will benefit from these new genetic sequencing initiatives, humans need the iconic trees as much as they need us. The world’s oldest and largest trees are one of nature’s most efficient means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and with the effects of climate change manifesting in more ways and with greater intensity than ever, their protection is imperative.
- Contribute to forest preservation by planting a tree every year on National Tree Day. (Or at any time!)
- When visiting the famous forests of California, or anywhere in the world, take a moment to learn about their threats and protection, and talk with those you know. With more people becoming aware of the plight of forests, it will sink deeper into the collective consciousness and result in engagement.
- This weekend, take some time to visit your local park, forest, or nature reserve and engage with the trees that you see, learning about their origins and qualities.
- Volunteer with local landcare or forest conservation groups in your area.
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