June 15, 2012
Scientists at the University of Guelph say they have the ability to clone American elm trees, which have been found to survive repeated epidemics of their biggest killer — Dutch elm disease.

Professors Praveen Saxena and Alan Sullivan, plant scientists in the university’s Department of Plant Agriculture, have published a report in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, stating, “This research has the potential to bring back the beloved American elm population to North America. It may also serve as a model to help propagate and preserve thousands of other endangered plant species at risk of extinction across the globe.” Their research is the first known use of in vitro culture technology to clone buds of mature American elm trees.

American elms were among the most popular and recognizable trees in Ontario, lining boulevards and adorning city centres. Over 95 per cent of the population in Eastern Canada and the U.S. has been wiped out by Dutch elm disease.

The imported fungal infection interferes with water transport and stops nutrients from circulating in the tree. Only about one in 100,000 elms may be naturally resistant to the pathogen.

The Guelph researchers selected tissue samples from survivors in Ontario, including a century-old elm tree growing on the university campus.

The scientists say that the trees that survived the epidemics may be an invaluable source of disease resistance for future plantings and breeding programs.

“We want to conserve and propagate the American elm and many other rare and endangered Canadian native species so that we can start to replace what has been decimated along the way,” said Gosling.