From Ancient Giants, Finding New Life to Help the Planet
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A California redwood dwarfs members of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, who are working to replicate the biggest and best of the species, the tallest living things
By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: April 9, 2011 FORT DICK, Calif. — Shooting skyward like a jagged knife, the giant stump in a cul-de-sac in this Northern California town is by all appearances dead and gone: ashen gray, hollowed by fire and sheared at about 40 feet by coastal winds or lightning.
Slide Show Cloning Redwoods
Tree enthusiasts hope to mass-produce trees like this redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park in Northern California.
But to Michael Taylor, a professional big-tree hunter, there are tantalizing signs of the stump’s potential.
“This snag is partially alive,” he explained, pointing to dozens of green sprouts on the trunk. “It has a lot of energy in it, and it will keep sending these up. They just can’t kill this thing.”
It is just those sprouts that lie at the heart of a plan hatched by a group of tree enthusiasts to clone — and then mass-produce — a collection of colossal redwoods, some of which date to before the birth of Jesus and can soar nearly 40 stories, the tallest living things on earth.
“We want to get the biggest, best genetic representations of the species,” said David Milarch, the co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. “And make millions and millions and millions of them.”
Mr. Milarch, who preaches his love for all things arboreal with an evangelical zeal, says that his mission is simple, if grandiose: to reforest the land with a variety of the most interesting tree species from around the world, and by extension, halt and reverse climate change.
“Everyone knows the problem, everyone knows the bad news,” said Mr. Milarch, a ruddy, jovial chain-smoker and a sixth-generation arborist. “This is the solution.”
That is debatable, of course. But what is certain is that Mr. Milarch’s approach is unique, if somewhat unorthodox. For while cloning has long been a staple of commercial and casual horticulture, trees, like humans, tend to reproduce most effectively when young.
“In a nursery setting, say something under five or 10 years, it’s really easy,” said Bill Werner, one of the group’s tree propagators. “But as they get older, material doesn’t seem to respond as well. It’s kind of a basic rule of biology — your grandmother doesn’t give birth to children.”
Cloning plants is nowhere near as difficult or sophisticated as cloning animals or other life forms. But it can be delicate work. Mr. Werner and other project propagators use various methods to clone two types of redwoods, coastal and giant sequoia. Those include so-called micropropagation, which basically uses tiny samples of plants, fed with heavy doses of synthetic growth hormones and nursed in a laboratory environment, to create genetically identical plants.
The method has long been used by horticulturalists to propagate plants, particularly finicky flora like orchids. In the case of the redwoods, Mr. Werner used small cuttings of sprouts and other plant material, including some cuttings from the upper reaches of giant sequoias. He slowly coaxed them into growing, and eventually, into growing roots. They were then transplanted to enriched soil, where they have continued to grow, now several inches high or more.
Mr. Milarch believes that this may be the first time that such ancient trees have been cloned in such a fashion. And while that could not be confirmed, William J. Libby, an emeritus professor of forestry and genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, said that Mr. Werner’s work was impressive nonetheless.
“What Bill has done is somewhere between what we thought was difficult and impossible,” said Mr. Libby, a consultant to the Archangel project. “And he moved it from impossible to difficult.”
Mr. Milarch’s efforts to capture the DNA of famous trees, which he has been at for nearly two decades, have raised some eyebrows in tree circles, as has his plan to sell the clones, something he says is necessary to finance his project. (The Archangel project has sought, but not yet been granted, federal nonprofit status, though it is recognized by the State of Michigan, where it is based.)
Connie Millar, a research scientist with the United States Forest Service, said it also did not necessarily track that the biggest, oldest trees had the best genes. “The longest lived trees could just be sitting on top of a water table, or sitting on especially rich soil,” said Ms. Millar, pointing out that the longest lived people are not necessarily the best genetically but rather those who get enough sleep, eat well and take care of themselves.