UW Today

This is an archived article.

June 1, 2001

Work of 50 faculty, staff and students harmed including research on plant genetics and ecosystem health

News and Information

– The thousands of seedlings used for poplar research at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture since the late ’80s have all been bred using traditional cross-pollination techniques except for 80 poplar plants obtained last fall from Oregon State University that have genes from other poplar trees inserted into them, according to Toby Bradshaw, research associate professor of forest resources.

– Understanding the basic biology of how poplar trees grow and develop is of interest to scientists such as Bradshaw who are trying to understand the basics of how all trees grow and, in the last two decades, to companies interested specifically in growing and harvesting poplar trees for making paper and other wood products.

– The 80 experimental plants OSU genetically engineered have had one poplar gene inserted into them that makes it much simpler to understand how genes function compared to traditional cross-pollination when 25,000 or more genes are exchanged, Bradshaw says. These “transgenic” trees are purely experimental and never leave the lab. Eventually Bradshaw and his group may themselves begin inserting single genes from one poplar to another but that work is not done currently at the Center for Urban Horticulture. If they do so, Bradshaw says he is only interested in moving genetic material between poplars.

– He and his colleagues have worked for 10 years mapping the poplar genome to locate individual genes that control important traits such as growth rate and disease resistance. They are particularly interested in the handful of genes that determine growth potential in trees.

– The 80 experimental plants compare to, for example, 15,000 poplar seedlings grown using traditional cross-pollination techniques – methods used on trees for more than 400 years – that Bradshaw and his group have used since he came to the Center for Urban Horticulture in 1995.

– Bradshaw says transgenic plants, those altered in some way other than through pollination, need to be evaluated for human and ecosystem safety, and he and Oregon State University’s Steve Strauss are organizing a conference in July, to which they’ve invited numerous environmental groups. Bradshaw says transgenic plants are a legitimate subject for basic research and will provide the scientific basis on which citizens and politicians can decide about their use.

– Poplars are deciduous trees with heart-shaped leaves about 3 inches across in native species and up to 12 inches across in trees that have been bred to grow quickly. Poplars have tiny seeds attached to fine, cottony fibers, which can be carried great distances on air currents – hence, the nickname “cottonwoods.”

– Poplars can be readily propagated – sometimes referred to as “cloning” — using cuttings. Just as a sprig from a houseplant can take root in water and grow into a new plant, cuttings a foot-long and half-inch wide from a poplar tree with the desired characteristics can be planted and will take root and sprout new shoots.

– This is one reason poplar trees are grown like a crop by a number of pulp and paper makers. They also are easy to grow and easy to breed for characteristics that make high quality paper. Industry uses traditionally bred poplars.

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Other center researchers whose work and records were destroyed or harmed include:

– Assistant Professor Sarah Reichard who studies endangered plants in Washington and, for example, was growing 100 showy stickseed plants from tissue cultures in her lab. With only an estimated 300 of the rare plants left in the Cascades, Reichard’s plants represents a quarter of the world’s population.

– Associate Professor Kern Ewing who seeks ways to give native grasses and plants a chance to come back in prairie areas of the region where invasive non-natives now reign, as well as finding ways to rehabilitate wetlands and other natural areas in our cities suffering from the pressures of being in an urban environment.

– Tom Hinckley, director of the Center for Urban Horticulture, who studies how trees and forests respond to natural events such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens and human activities such as logging.

– Associate Professor Linda Chalker-Scott who thinks urban landscapes should be designed in ways so they can be sustained – even when heavily used – without constant maintenance and the need to replace plants, use pesticides and water heavily.

– Mary Robson and the gardening experts with Washington State University Cooperative Extension-King County who work with a variety of programs for gardeners including coordinating master gardeners and pea-patch gardens for the working poor.

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Other facilities housed in the building included:

– The Elisabeth C. Miller Horticultural Library where librarians last year answered more than 12,000 gardening questions and helped researchers, students and members of the public make use of the public collection as well as a rare books. It’s estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the collection has been saved, although many of those volumes need treatment for water and smoke damage.

– At the Otis Hyde Herbarium, with its dried plant specimens many of which document the collection in the Washington Park Arboretum, it’s been estimated that 20 percent of the specimens suffered water damage.