Cloning Ancient Trees

General discussions of forests and trees that do not focus on a specific species or specific location.

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Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by bbeduhn » Tue Apr 23, 2013 9:02 am

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Will Blozan
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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by Will Blozan » Tue Apr 23, 2013 10:55 am


I almost wholeheartedly disagree with this guy and his concept. It is flawed on so many levels and misses the point on many more. I am not saying it should not be done but the high-grading basis for his reforestation is misguided and myopic. Also, using the American Forest National Champion tree listing for the superlative specimens is a whole can of worms in itself. And how we know it!

The majority of the worlds forests past and present are/were not composed of superlative trees. Superlative trees are not the all exclusive best choice for all situations. It seems as though a naturally regenerating clear cut would do more carbon storage (at least in the short term?) and ecosystem benefit than off-site planted exotics. If carbon is the main issue trees are one answer but his route may not be the best. I'll add more as the discussion boils.


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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by edfrank » Tue Apr 23, 2013 12:22 pm

Will, Brian,

The situation is much more complicated than this as to what would be the best genes in a particular environment, for example in a dry area, but a simplified conceptual diagram can be done as follows:
genes.JPG (21.75 KiB) Viewed 3362 times
In the diagram you have poor, average, and good sites and poor, average, and good genes. It can be seen from the diagram that the only size class exclusively occupied by the trees with the best genes are the superlative trees growing on good sites. What is defined by the best genes here are those for trees that have grown for the longest time, through various weather patterns, and have reached the largest size. They grew to that size because they lasted a long time growing on that site, so they are the best by process of elimination. The genes of younger trees or smaller trees may or may not also be the best, but you won't be able to tell this until they reach their maximum size. So by selecting the biggest trees you are selecting the those trees with the best genetic mix that have allowed them to grow to be the best in spite of everything else. They likely would be the best genes for trees in the same climatic regime to grow on average and poor sites, and would because of the different size conditions produce a tree sized for the specific site or subsite from average to big to superlative in size.

The best opposing arguments to size representing the best genes, would be a classification of best genes based on age/longevity or one based upon the biggest or oldest tree growing on a site with a particular environmental condition. For example this is the biggest or oldest Pinyon Pine growing on this dry site, so this likely is better adapted for this particular condition than the biggest tree from elsewhere in the species range.

A final consideration is there isn't good information on what amount of genetic variation exists within a species or what amount of gene expression is available within any gene set. Gene expression that are just waiting to be expressed under the particular environmental situation that particular tree is facing. So there might not actually be that much difference between the genes in any average tree and those of the biggest or oldest tree.

Edward Forrest Frank
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by Rand » Tue Apr 23, 2013 10:31 pm

Seems like this quandary is really similar to the hybrid seed displacing indigenous seed debate you see in agriculture. Sure we can get great results for our particular purposes over the scale of a human lifetime, but every couple of decades we always have to go back and dip into nature's well of diversity when something unanticipated pops up.

Seems a pretty perilous task to take on with an organism whose lifespan is hundreds to thousands of times longer than our favorite annual crops, because it might take a hair-raisingly large fraction of that length of time to propagate the next tweaked cultivar. Take the herculean efforts of the American Chestnut Foundation for example.

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by Chris Earle » Mon Apr 29, 2013 7:29 pm

This is actually kind of a fun idea. The basic idea here is, of course, really dubious: take a tree that is genetically optimized to grow perfectly well on a perfect site, and then plant it out on all sorts of imperfect sites. These progeny may well not have any adaptive superiority at all. But maybe the glass is half full: this program is popularizing the idea that we should plant diverse trees all over the place, and look at their performance. It's a great technique for education and maybe good for ecosystems, too, if most of these plantings happen in biogeographical wastelands like the U.K. But as a scientist, I have to chuckle because this approach takes no heed of epigenetics. If you plant a diploid tree you have no idea what you will get because its gene expression is to a large degree a function of the environment it encounters at the planting site. If you plant a hexaploid like coast redwood, even more dramatic changes in site-specific adaptation can be expected. Personally I look forward to seeing what grows from these "super trees."

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Matt Markworth
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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by Matt Markworth » Mon Apr 29, 2013 10:41 pm


Welcome to the Native Tree Society!

Your Gymnosperm Database at is an amazing resource and I congratulate you on the accomplishment. It's been helpful to me recently as I've been doing research for the Tree of the Week Maximums List (

I look forward to your scientific observations on the many topics that are discussed and again, welcome aboard.

- Matt

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by Chris Earle » Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:05 pm

Thanks, Matt, but beware of logrolling. Most of my big trees data comes from big trees websites like this one (full inventory on my Links page at ). I don't even own a ranging laser.

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by edfrank » Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:38 pm

Here is a paper that looks at genetic variation in trees:
Levels of Genetic Variation in Trees: Influence of life history characteristics1. J. L. Hamrick,2 J. B. Mitton,3 and Y.B. Linhart3. ... amrick.pdf
Abstract: In a previous study, levels of genetic variation, as measured by isozyme analyses, were
compared for 113 taxa of vascular plants. Each species was classified for 12 life history and
ecological traits and three measures of genetic variation were calculated. Plants with large ranges,
high fecundities, an outcrossing mode of reproduction, wind pollination, a long generation time,
and from habitats representing later stages of succession tended to have more isozyme variation
than species with other combinations of characteristics. This paper discusses the results of the
previous study and examines the available isozyme data for similar trends in forest trees. Special
consideration was given to differences in genetic variation among 20 conifer species that have
many of their life history characteristics in common. Successional stage, habitat type, cone type
and historical events were associated with differences in genetic variation among the conifer
species. These results are discussed in terms of expectations from current population genetics

Ecology. 2009 Jul;90(7):1762-72.
A geographic mosaic of genetic variation within a foundation tree species and its community-level consequences.
Barbour RC, O'Reilly-Wapstra JM, De Little DW, Jordan GJ, Steane DA, Humphreys JR, Bailey JK, Whitham TG, Potts BM.
School of Plant Science and Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 55, Hobart, 7001, Tasmania, Australia.
Knowledge of the manner in which genetic variation within a tree species affects associated communities and ecosystem processes across its entire range is important for understanding how geographic mosaics of genetic interactions might develop and support different communities. While numerous studies have investigated the community and ecosystem consequences of genetic variation at the hybrid cross type or genotype level within a species, none has investigated the community-level effects of intraspecific genetic variation across the geographic range of a widespread species. This is the scale at which geographic mosaics of coevolution are hypothesized to exist. Studies at this level are particularly important for foundation tree species, which typically support numerous microbial, fungal, plant, and animal communities. We studied genetic variation across eight geographical races of the forest tree Eucalyptus globulus representing its natural distribution across southeastern Australia. The study was conducted in a 15-year-old common garden trial based on families derived from single-tree open-pollinated seed collections from the wild. Neutral molecular genetic variation within E. globulus was also assessed and compared with genetic divergence in the phenotypic and community traits. Three major findings emerged. First, we found significant genetically based, hierarchical variation in associated communities corresponding to geographical races of E. globulus and families within races. Second, divergence in foliar communities at the racial level was associated with genetically based divergence in specific leaf morphological and chemical traits that have known defensive functions. Third, significant positive correlations between canopy community dissimilarity and both neutral molecular genetic and leaf quantitative genetic dissimilarity at the race level supported a genetic similarity rule. Our results argue that genetic variation within foundation tree species has the potential to be a significant driver of the geographical mosaics of variation typical of forest communities, which could have important ecological and evolutionary implications.
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by eliahd24 » Thu Jan 30, 2014 12:19 pm

As I sit here at home on day 2 of "Snowpocalypse" in Atlanta, I'm reading "The Man Who Planted Trees", by Jim Robbins, about David Milarch who is at the head of the Archangel Project (formerly Champion Tree). He's coming to speak at my workplace on 2/20/14 (free with online registration at It's an interesting book, but my first thought about Milarch's mission and the whole cloning of champ trees was... "what would my fellow NTSers think". Will's reaction was pretty much how I felt many would feel. The project still intrigues me though. The author reinforces multiple times that the trees being cloned are NOT necessarily thought of as having superior genes, but instead they they MIGHT have SOME superior genes. At least enough so, that it's worth saving them. This all goes back to Milarch's first revelation ("premonition"/"divine intervention"/"near death experience") that climate change was imminently threatening these champions and forests in general. It's an interesting book that I'd recommend y'all read. Even if you think David Milarch is a total nut, it is thought provoking. After I finish the book, I'll probably revisit this post or see if anyone else has already posted on this book (as I'm sure I'm not the first NTS to read it).
Last edited by eliahd24 on Thu Jan 30, 2014 1:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Cloning Ancient Trees

Post by dbhguru » Thu Jan 30, 2014 1:14 pm


As you might imagine, my thoughts parallel those of Will's. There is little justification for cloning many of the so-called national champions just because they carry that title when a little research and outreach could produce plenty of truly worthy trees to clone - far, far, far better than the ones chosen. Why didn't the Milarchs take that route?

It is all about choices. You either make them blindfolded or you call upon the best sources of information. Imagine setting out to clone the best of the tuliptrees. It is easy (cheap) to go after the so-called national champion. It is quite another thing to follow Will Blozan to the Sag Branch tree or one of the other Smoky Mountain giants to collect some really worthy samples for cloning.

As you know American Forests has launched a project to improve the National Register, source listing for the national champions. The AF MGWG was formed to handle the measuring challenges that we all in NTS no so well. The measuring group is moving along, although it is now, basically, down to two producers: Don Bertolette and myself. Pretty remarkable, huh? However, I doubt that Milarch is aware that such a group as AF MGWG exists.

Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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