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Enabling better global research outcomes in soil, plant & environmental monitoring.

World’s Oldest Trees

February 16, 2016 11:21 am

In recent years, individuals, governments and organisations have shown a unified commitment to maintaining global biodiversity, through projects such as the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA), the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Causes such as these are helping to drive a global movement to regenerate the planet’s forests and natural carbon sinks, and to preserve and research the genetics of millions of plant varieties worldwide.

Seed banks are an indication that the global community is aware of the necessity of maintaining global biodiversity by storing seeds and researching their genetics. Seed banks also store duplicates of the world’s crop collections to ensure continued global food security.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a ‘backup’ of crop collections and gene banks from around the world. Located on the Norwegian Island of Spitzbergen, the Seed Vault is a global safeguard against the loss of crop variety due to political instability, climate change or something as simple as a dysfunctional freezer. The Seed Vault is carved into the permafrost of a mountain, ensuring samples remain frozen at -18°C even without power; it is located 130m above sea level, making it safe from climate change; and the island is under an international treaty, so can be visited by anyone without a passport. In a location that is as far north as you can fly, the Seed Vault is geologically stable and remote yet accessible. They accept deposits from nations, institutions and collections to ensure a diverse collection. The Seed Vault has a capacity to store 2.5 billion seed samples of 4.5 million crop varieties (approx. 500 seeds per variety).

However unlike the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership not only stores seeds but also actively researches their genetics. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, based in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is working internationally in countries across every continent, collecting seeds that are endangered, endemic to particular areas, and of economic importance, in order to preserve and research their genetics. To date, the Partnership is the most diverse place on the planet per square meter. The Partnership places particular emphasis on collecting samples from regions and plants that are most at risk from climate change and human impact. So far the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has samples of 13% of the world’s wild plant species.

In a similar vein, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) is cloning the world’s oldest and largest trees for two reasons: to preserve their genetics and to engage the next generation in replanting the world’s forests. The trees that are cloned by the project are on average several thousand years old, having withstood many climate change swings and the 350 year industrial age. The resistance of these trees to climatic pressures is of great interest to scientists and researchers who are increasingly aware of the impacts of deforestation and climate change today. Only 15% of the world’s ‘old forests’ remain, meaning that the commitment to preserve their genetics and start to replant is vital to preserving some of the world’s best carbon sinks.

The technique for the cloning of these trees is called micro-propagation. This process involves taking tiny shavings from stems or branches of the ancient trees, and cultivating them into larger tissue samples. These are then ‘weaned’ from the growth tubes and grown into ‘quasi-ancient’ trees that have an identical genetic make-up to the original trees. This is a particularly difficult process for very old and very tall trees. The saplings generated by this process are used to build or rehabilitate existing forests. Unlike a seed bank, the AATA not only files genetic information but is also involved in the active expansion of living forests. In addition, the project is also implementing a strategy of ‘assisted migration,’ which is aimed at combating the effects of changing climates, by planting saplings in new, cooler climates that more closely match the original climates where the ancient trees first grew.

The mission of the AATA is to propagate, archive and reforest, and as such to display a commitment not only to genetic preservation, but also to rebuilding living forests. Furthermore, the organisation strives to “propagate the propagators,” by engaging students in community reforestation projects and teaching climate change solutions. This dedication to the education of the wider community is a testament to the project’s determination to make a valuable and lasting impact.

The AATA has developed a Climate Change Curriculum designed to teach school children about climate change and encourage them to channel their learning into action and art. The focus of the curriculum is characterised by the acronym, STEEAMED: Science, Technology, Environmental/Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, Economics and Design. It has four modules dedicated to teaching children about the basics of climate change, looking in particular at carbon chemistry, photosynthesis and respiration, the carbon cycle, and human population growth and industrialisation. The curriculum not only gives children an understanding of the scientific basis of climate change, but it also allows students the opportunity to explore their understanding through art and thus help them move towards action.

The AATA has also developed the ‘Tree School,’ an education program for adults and school and university students. This program encourages community involvement in reforestation projects and economic development. It similarly has four modules, giving participants experience in tree identification, tree climbing, fieldwork, tree propagation techniques and tree planting. These programs are intended to instill in a new generation a commitment to rebuilding global forests and developing the economy of their communities through agroforestry.

Increasing global awareness of the necessity to maintain the world’s old forests, as an insight into the world’s history and as a means to continue supporting life on Earth, is crucial. Through environmental research and monitoring, particularly of plants, we can help raise awareness of these issues and engage the global community in projects that will help to secure our future. With worldwide collaboration between researchers, governments, and the general community, it is possible to make a global commitment to change and set about fulfilling this dedication to improving the health of our planet.