A 200-year-old elm tree in Perth Amboy, New Jersey has withstood innumerable trials: Dutch elm disease, a terrible storms over decades, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012. To preserve the tree's genetic heritaqe, scientists from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are cutting twigs from the tree's aging branches and flash freezing them in storage for decades and possibly for centuries.
Originally, scientists planned to cryo-preserve seeds from the tree, but upon inspection, there were no embryos within the seeds. Researchers believe the cause was a lack of other elms nearby to pollinate the flowers. So the scientific team decided to try preserving germplasm from twig cuttings.
Plans are also underway this year to obtain viable seed from the elm by using pollen collected from the historic tree or taken from another elm of the same species.
ARS plant physiologist Christine Walters noted that millions of American elms were decimated by a fungal pathogen that causes Dutch elm disease. "Using our genetic resource collections," she says, "we can stay steps ahead of such disasters -- whether they happen to elms, apples, citrus, or wheat."
The Perth Amboy elm was planted around 1815 and it is considered a symbol of the town's strength and its ties to New Jersey and US history. Town resident Thomas Mundy Peterson in 1870 walked beneath the elm on his way to vote at City Hall -- the first African American to vote under the newly-enacted 15th Amendment.