The race to save the world's great trees by cloning them Lady Liberty, a 2,000-year-old tree in Florida, will be cloned this fall. The organization that will create the cloned tree says it's preserving the tree's unique genetic strengths. (Ed Rosack/edrosack.com/Jake Milarch)
The race to save the world's great trees by cloning them
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It isn't hard to find the big tree they call Lady Liberty in Florida. It stands at the end of a boardwalk about 16 miles north of Orlando. It stands along with many gums, oaks and magnolias in the middle of a small public park.

What is hard is photographing the living landmark. At 89 feet tall, Lady Liberty is much smaller than some champion trees. But it's still gigantic by most standards. This makes it a big draw for tourists who come to see what a 2,000-year-old tree looks like. It is impossible to capture the entire massive trunk and gnarled branches in a single frame. But many visitors try. They lie on the ground below with cameras pointed skyward.

Last December, the Archangel Tree Archive will paid a visit to Big Tree Park as well. The Archive hoped to gather some young shoots from Lady Liberty's branches to clone the massive cypress. The non-profit specializes in collecting and storing the genetic material of iconic old trees. Then it seeks appropriate places to replant the resulting clones. It is an effort to preserve them for future generations. Experts estimate that less than 10 percent of the old growth forest in the U.S. is still standing. Some stands of the oldest trees are now threatened by logging and development.  

Or worse. For years the majestic Lady Liberty was overshadowed by the Senator. It is another bald cypress that used to grow in this same Seminole County park. The Senator had once reached a height of 165 feet. Postcards from the 1920s show groups of people trying, unsuccessfully, to hold hands and encircle the tree's massive 12-foot-wide trunk. Experts estimated that the giant tree was more than 3,500 years old.

The Senator burned to the ground three years ago. The managers of Big Tree Park received more than 1,000 emails and phone calls from people all over the world. They expressed their sadness and outrage.

"I had parents who recalled going to see the Senator with their grandparents. And their grandparents had been there with their grandparents," says Jim Duby. He is the program manager for Seminole County. What had seemed indomitable was suddenly gone. A personal connection people felt to the past was severed. The tragedy also inspired in some people a renewed appreciation for the trees that remained. This included some volunteers at the park who asked about protecting and researching Lady Liberty.

Enter Archangel. Previous projects have taken Archangel scientists to the tops of California's redwoods. Other projects have taken them to depths of old-growth forests in England. They are often called in to clone trees growing near historic homes. This includes places such as George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Archangel's lead propagator is Jake Milarch. He says his staff and a group of scientific advisors have identified a list of approximately 100 iconic trees around the world that should be cloned.

"We go for the biggest trees, because those are the ones that have survived," he says, arguing that their genetics likely played a big part in that longevity.

Not everyone is convinced that cloning big old trees is always worthwhile. Some critics point out that conservation work should ideally seek to protect more than lone specimens, pushing instead to save valuable parcels of land and their embedded habitats to protect the health of the entire ecosystem. Others worry that cloning could potentially create a dangerously vulnerable monoculture if locations for the new trees are not selected carefully and tracked regularly.

"I think it's a wonderful idea. I think to preserve those species that have stood the test of time is necessary. But it's not sufficient," says Charles Maynard, director of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center in New York. His own group has spent decades researching the genetics of chestnut trees and the possible ways blight-resistant strains of those trees could be realistically reintroduced into forests. 

The environment where those trees once grew as seedlings has changed, Maynard notes, and what might have grown well there centuries ago might not grow as well today. You also need to preserve diversity to increase the odds that the resulting new trees are resilient, he says. That means collecting samples from at least 50 to 100 trees to ensure long-term survival of each species.

But Maynard likes the idea that the cloned trees are being planted, even if they are in places slightly different than where they were gathered. "Just a couple of old trees stuck in a test tube aren't going to do much for you," he says. 

Andrew Eckert, a tree biologist from Virginia Commonwealth University, cautions that not all iconic trees survived due to superior genetics. Some may have just been lucky. On the other hand, he thinks there's great value in planting the clones to be able to continue studying large trees after the original has died. Even when the clones are only a few inches tall, they are genetically identical to the parent plant.

"I would bet that these would be the trees to study to understand climate oscillations," Eckert says. They may provide lots of information on how some species will adapt to global climate change.

Seminole County officials still feel that cloning Lady Liberty is the right move. (The Senator had already been cloned by a different group almost 20 years ago, and in 2013 the county spent $14,000 to buy two clones and replant them nearby.)

"Given what happened three years ago to the Senator," Duby from Seminole County notes, "I think we'd be kicking ourselves if, God forbid, something similarly tragic happened to Lady Liberty and we hadn't done the cloning."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How do scientists estimate how old trees are?
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COMMENTS (10)
  • pjack-dav
    10/10/2016 - 09:46 a.m.

    In response to 'The race to save the worlds greatest trees by cloning them' I agree that the world should clone trees. One reason I agree is the article states that many generations of families have seen and enjoyed these trees, so I think we should keep these specimens from loosing their popularity. Another reason is more people will travel to see these trees and want to preserve the ecosystem. It says in the article that other people would rather preserve the ecosystem and that is true too but an important part of an ecosystem is trees. A third reason is certain trees do certain things to an ecosystem the ecosystem may not thrive, this also pertains to butterflies who lay their eggs on milkweed plants, if there is a shortage of milkweed plants the butterflies may not thrive as much as the would if there were a lot of milkweed plants. Even though many people may disagree I think it is pretty cool to see a 2,000 year old tree and it's clones.

  • kanthony-dav
    10/10/2016 - 02:46 p.m.

    In response to "_The Race to save the worlds great trees by cloning them____________," I agree that _it is a smart idea to clone our great trees____________________. One reason I agree is that __we need more trees since they are being cut down at a rapid pace__________. Another reason is that _if something terrible happened to Lady Liberty, there would be no way to make it reappear.It says in the article that the senator strongly agreed with the idea of cloning Lady Liberty. A third reason _that it takes a long time for something to grow unique, and something that is very unique can be destroyed easily.
    Even though _cloning trees seems unnatural, I think
    _it is a smart idea.

  • vcara-dav
    10/10/2016 - 09:52 p.m.

    In response to "The Race To Save The World's Great Trees By Cloning Them," I agree that cloning these plants is a good idea. One reason I agree is because if these spectacular trees get destroyed without a clone, they would be lost forever. Scientists could not study them anymore and tourists would not be able to see the trees in person. Another reason is that no one knows if another tree could live to be as old or grow as tall as some of the trees cloned, so it is important to be able to conserve those unique qualities the trees possess. It says in the article, "They might provide lots of information on how some species will adapt to global climate change." This is yet another reason why I agree that cloning the trees is a good idea. Even though cloning could create a vulnerable monoculture, in a whole it will help the environment.

  • jamariw-orv
    10/12/2016 - 01:00 p.m.

    Im not sure everything would be the same

  • eharlan-dav
    10/12/2016 - 05:32 p.m.

    In response to "The race to save the world's great trees by cloning them" I agree that it would help the world if we cloned trees that have lived many years. One reason I agree it would help us observe the way these trees have adapted to changing climates and other various things that trees need to live. In the article it states that '"I would bet that these would be the trees to study to understand climate oscillations," Eckert says. They may provide lots of information on how some species will adapt to global climate change." This statements helps prove my point in my first supporting topic. Another reason that I agree to the article is that it helps preserve these same exact trees for the future generations to enjoy if a natural or manmade disaster destroys these trees. Some may argue that if these trees are planted in a ecosystem that other trees can't live with, it would kill these trees. These would probably be prevented by people who specialize in planting these trees in environments they can live equally with other trees.

  • hannahl1-sto
    10/13/2016 - 03:12 p.m.

    The scientists look to see how old they are by the rings around the trees.

  • polivia-dav
    10/13/2016 - 08:27 p.m.

    In response to this article, I agree that trees should be cloned. One reason I agree with this is that it impacts our environment in a positive way. Less trees will go to waste. Another reason is that cloning trees is good for our research as humans. After one tree dies, another could take its place. It would have the same DNA. It says in the article, "I would bet that these would be the trees to study to understand climate oscillations," Eckert says. They may provide lots of information on how some species will adapt to global climate change." I hope cloning trees makes a difference in the near furture.

  • wriver-dav
    10/17/2016 - 05:13 p.m.

    In response to "The race to save the world's great trees by cloning them," I agree that cloning these trees would be the right move. One reason I agree is that I think it's really cool that these trees have gotten this big and that we should save them for future generations to also admire. Another reason is that they are a huge tourist attractions and historical sites. One scientist in the article says," I think it's a wonderful idea. I think to preserve those species that have stood the test of time is necessary." A third reason is that some old historic trees such as trees beside George Washington's house Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello can now be cloned to be kept there for generations. Even though it does cost $14,000 to get just two of these trees, I think it would still be a very good cause to invest in.

  • hjake-dav
    10/17/2016 - 08:26 p.m.

    In response to this article, I found it very, well, angering. I felt like the old trees should not be cloned, because it's apart of the past, and should be praised and admired for the trees rarity. If they clone them, more of them will grow, so what would be so special about them then?

  • madilyn-dav
    10/20/2016 - 08:40 p.m.

    In response to "The Race to Save the World's Great Trees by Cloning Them," I agree that the big trees should be cloned. One reason I agree is that if you clone a tree, then even if something happens to the original tree, you will still have the same tree in a different spot. Another reason is that if you don't use cloning to plant strong trees, then there will eventually be no more durable trees left. It says in the article "Experts estimate that less than 10 percent of the old growth forest in the U.S. is still standing." That is not a lot of original trees! A third reason is that if you don't do the cloning, and something happens to the tree, there won't be another strong tree to plant. The article says "'I think we'd be kicking ourselves if, God forbid, something similarly tragic happened to Lady Liberty and we hadn't done the cloning.'" Although there are other options to making a tree, I think that cloning is the smartest option because then people are able to control the amount of trees that are put into the wild.

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