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Dr. Praveen Saxena poses for a portrait in the invitro conservation room in the Edmund C. Bovey building at the University of Guelph. Dr. Saxena is also holding a small clone of an American Elm tree. (Philip Cheung For The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Praveen Saxena poses for a portrait in the invitro conservation room in the Edmund C. Bovey building at the University of Guelph. Dr. Saxena is also holding a small clone of an American Elm tree. (Philip Cheung For The Globe and Mail)

Guelph scientist turns to cryogenics to protect trees Add to ...

In a small, windowless room at the University of Guelph, Praveen Saxena peruses a shelf packed with little green shoots growing in pint-sized bottles of liquid nutrients.

There are thousands of individual plants from several species, mostly laboratory cultures of trees – including the stately American elm – that are at risk from disease, climate change or encroaching development.

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“Acres and acres would not be able to accommodate what we have here,” says Prof. Saxena, director of the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation.

His point underscores the special challenges of tree preservation: It is difficult to protect mature trees. If their environment changes too fast, they cannot adjust. They simply die, taking their genes with them. And preserving a genetic line in a lab means culturing it over and over.

So Prof. Saxena, a plant biologist, is turning to the science of cryogenics to ensure that the trees he’s culturing in his lab have a place in the landscapes of the future.

His work holds the possibility of repopulating the world with trees once thought all but lost, better arming forests against disease, and making trees with commercial value more productive.

With the help of a $2-million private donation announced this week, Prof. Saxena is building a state-of-the-art facility in which living tree tissue can be frozen, preserved and revived as needed for decades to come. Scientists will use the lab’s resources to foster tree varieties, species and individuals, that are especially hardy or productive and explore why some seem to be well-equipped genetically to stave off threats.

“We are developing technologies to make plants survive,” Prof. Saxena says.

The project, unique in Canada, is a labour of love for Prof. Saxena. Not so long ago, he expected to be winding down nearly three decades of research. Instead, he is busier than ever, thanks to a blossoming relationship with Philip and Susan Gosling, the philanthropists behind this week’s gift, who have made tree conservation a personal priority.

An avid bird watcher, Mr. Gosling traces his interest to the loss of a favourite stand of American elms near his home, and of the orioles that nested in them every spring. The culprit was Dutch elm disease, an insect-borne fungus that has all but wiped out native elms since it appeared in North America about 85 years ago. Efforts to restore the trees, which once lined many streets in Canada and the United States, have been hampered by the technical challenges of finding and culturing disease-resistant survivors.

“For a while, it seemed people had given up hope,” says Louis Bernier of Laval University, a specialist in the Dutch elm disease fungus. “The idea is that if you can find trees that look promising and you have a technique like cryopreservation, you can conserve that material.”

With initial funding from the Goslings’ foundation in 2011, Prof. Saxena and his team cloned an American elm from the buds of a mature tree on the Guelph campus that withstood the disease even as others around it withered. Since then, the group has frozen and revived elm tree tissue, paving the way for genetically identical versions to be cultured and stored in the lab.

Prof. Saxena says the latest donation from the Goslings will allow his team to expand its efforts to encompass other trees under pressure, including ash, chestnut and sugar maple. He has also been in discussion with prospective international partners, including Britain’s famed Kew Gardens, and he envisions the facility working on preserving trees from around the world.

“It seems a logical next step to do that for whatever species is in trouble,” says Mrs. Gosling, who holds a degree in plant science.

While cryopreservation is not new in plant research, it is technically challenging for many species, and expensive. “There hasn’t been a lot of funding available to pursue the opportunities that are out there,” says Gayle Volk, a plant physiologist with the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The process involves bathing carefully prepared tissue from laboratory cultured plants in a special cryoprotectant, a chemical mix that prevents ice crystals from forming inside the living cells. The cells are then flash frozen by immersion in liquid nitrogen, and stored. They will resume normal growth after they are warmed up, even many years later. The method is especially useful for preserving trees with desirable genes that may not necessarily be passed on through seeds. And it is efficient.

“Being able to store essentially a whole forest in a bunch of small cryo vials – that’s a very powerful thing,” says Scott Merkle, a professor of forest biology who works on cryopreservation at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.

And as genetic technologies evolve, the opportunities for reviving species can only improve – but only if the preserved cells are there to work with.

Prof. Saxena says Mr. Gosling simply told him: “You save while you can and I’ll help.”

Mr. Gosling, a retired real-estate investor in the Guelph area and founder of the Wellington Brewery, hopes the institute that bears his name will ensure that some day, people will be able to enjoy the elm trees as he once did.

“Being able to experience nature … this is what’s important,” he says.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the first name of the director of the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation. He is Praveen Saxena, not Parveen Saxena as published.

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