2 UGA professors hope to clone oak

Web posted Thursday, April 10, 2003
| Staff Writer

Scott Merkle, a professor at the UGA school of forest resources, takes a limb from the Arsenal Oak for cloning. The diseased tree is responding to arborists’ treatments.

It was there during the Civil War and has lived through the invention of the automobile and the airplane, but on Wednesday, Augusta State University’s Arsenal Oak was witness to a historic event that could help it survive even longer – its cloning.

Two University of Georgia professors visited Augusta State on Wednesday to begin a process of cloning that they hope will preserve the tree, which is battling a deadly disease called hypoxylon for several months.

“It’s beautiful,” said Hazel Wetzstein, of the Department of Horticulture at UGA, after seeing the oak.The tree is estimated to be 250 to 400 years old and is considered the oldest white oak in the Augusta area. It also is the official symbol for Augusta State. On Wednesday, Dr. Wetzstein and Scott Merkle, of the forest resources department, took a few clippings from the tree to obtain bud samples, which were only slightly larger than grains of salt.

“See these nice little buds here,” said Dr. Wetzstein, examining one of the clippings. “What we’ll try to do is sterilize this.”

She said the clippings would be taken to her UGA lab, and buds would be placed into a test tube or baby food jar. They will be sterilized to prevent bacteria or fungi from growing during the cloning.

The professor said plants are unlike humans in that stem cells aren’t necessary for regeneration.

“Every plant cell has the ability to regenerate itself,” Dr. Wetzstein said.

Acorns, however, won’t work. They are “a progeny of the tree.”

“So, it’s the same as how our children aren’t exactly like ourselves,” she said. “To get an identical clone, you have to use a mature tissue.”

The hope is that newly formed buds will create new shoots that could be planted. New shoots are needed because, Dr. Wetzstein said, a clipping from the tree wouldn’t produce roots because of its age.

Dr. Wetzstein and Dr. Merkle said it their lab has never before attempted to clone a white oak.

“I’m optimistic, but truly it is going to be a difficult project,” Dr. Wetzstein said.

“Oaks are tough,” Dr. Merkle said.

Hazel Wetzstein, a UGA professor of agriculture and environmental services, says mature tissue is needed for cloning.

Nonetheless, school officials said it was a landmark day.

“It’s a major event for us,” said Max Brown, the grounds supervisor for Augusta State. “We’re just thrilled the possibility (of cloning) is here.”

Dr. Merkle said it will take only a week or two to determine whether the buds taken Wednesday can be properly sterilized. If everything goes smoothly, the cloning process probably will take months.

“A year is a good estimate,” Dr. Merkle said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

–From the Thursday, April 10, 2003 printed edition of the Augusta Chronicle