Burnt 3,500 Year Old Tree in Florida Is a Candidate for Cloning

Father of JGKlein/Public Domain. The Senator, in 1967.

The January 16 burning of The Senator, an enormous cypress tree in Longwood, Florida, was much mourned, and rightfully so. At 3,500 years of age, it was one of the oldest trees in the world and the largest east of the Mississippi River. But the loss of the great tree does not have to be permanent, says a group dedicated to forestation. The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive wants to clone the Senator's DNA to preserve and propagate the genetics of a one of nature's greatest success stories.

When the tree burnt on January 16 of this year, arson was originally suspected, but investigators determined that it had actually burned from the inside out after being struck by lightning earlier in the month (updated: see below). Firefighters' efforts to save the historic tree were unsuccessful. The Senator is survived by a neighboring cypress tree- Lady Liberty is a sprightly 2,000 years old.

The non-profit Archangel Ancient Tree Archive mainly focuses on archiving the genetics of ancient redwoods. The oldest trees, they say, are the hardiest and most likely to survive- thus they are the best candidates for cloning.

Anthony Scotti/CC BY 3.0

In an August, 2011 TED talk, co-founder David Milarch summarized the group's goals:

Our mission is to propagate, archive and help reforest the planet using clones of the world’s oldest, largest trees of each species that will have the greatest positive environmental benefit for the world, We’re collecting samples of the best of the best.

These ancient trees have an unbroken chain of natural selection for tens of thousands of years with a complete memory of how they were able to do what they are doing today…SURVIVE.

In a letter to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, US Lawns President Ken Hutcheson explained that a sample of the Senator was taken in the 1990s, but failed to yield a usable genetic replica. He called for a renewed effort to procure a sample from the burnt remains, in order to replicate the great tree, which was 125' feet high (165' until a 1925 hurricane chopped off its upper reaches) and had a circumference of 47'. A US Lawns press release quoted Milarch as agreeing: “There is a golden opportunity in this tragedy."

If the tree were successfully cloned, it would only be another three millennia until Florida would be home to the fully mature Senator, 2.0. And if scientists are already working on reviving extinct woolly mammoths, why not trees as well?

Updated March 1:

It turns out the Senator was not set on fire by a lighting strike, but by a woman smoking methamphetamine at its base. 26-year-old Sarah Barnes admitted to starting the fire and was arrested on February 28, reported WFTV.

Tags: Florida | Forestry

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