UF-led team mobilizes to save super-rare tree on the brink of extinction
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida torreya is the most endangered tree in North America. And it may soon disappear entirely.
But scientists such as the University of Florida’s Jason Smith are ready to fight for the species, which is a critical part of its native ecosystem in the Florida Panhandle.
That’s why he and other leading researchers and conservationists from across the country are headed to the Torreya Tree of Life event next week to develop a rescue plan.
“A main goal of the event is to gather the best minds in one place and hammer out plan of action that can bring the torreya back from the brink,” said Smith, an associate professor of forest resources and conservation in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
In the 1930s, scientists estimated that there were half a million torreya trees in the wild, Smith said. But by 2008, when Smith began studying the tree, there were fewer than 1,000 left. Smith’s research showed that dying trees were infected with a fungus that stops seed production and ultimately kills the plant.
The Torreya Tree of Life event is set for March 1 and 2, with presentations held at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, Florida, and at the Gregory House at the Torreya State Park in Bristol, Florida. A full agenda and other event information can be found at TorreyaTreeOfLife.com.
The event’s keynote speaker, Edward O. Wilson, is one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. Wilson, who noted the torreya’s decline in the 1950s, will now return to the site of his initial observations.
Now, with the torreya in even greater peril, Wilson’s return is bittersweet, Smith said. However, he hopes Wilson’s presence will inspire hope among the researchers and conservationists attending the event.
Other speakers will include representatives from UF/IFAS, the UF Biodiversity Institute, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, The Morton Arboretum, The American Chestnut Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service.
The second day of activities will take place outside, where organizers will lead a hike through Torreya State Park, where attendees will see how the trees have been affected by disease, as well current torreya restoration and research sites.
Moving forward, one of the goals of the project is to map out all the species associated with torreya, Smith said.
This will help researchers understand the tree’s role in the ecosystem and what will happen to that system if the torreya disappears. This approach is part of an emerging trend in conservation that shifts the focus from single endangered species to the complex web of life linked to that species, Smith said.
In the lab, Smith and his collaborators are exploring ways to make the torreya more resistant to the fungal infection that has so devastated it. One possible tool is the gene editing technology CRISPR.
“This is a novel approach. We plan to use CRISPR technology to enhance disease resistance traits in torreya to make it more capable of tolerating the disease,” Smith said. “The thing about this fungus is that it tends to take advantage of weaker trees, so we’ve noticed that when the trees are more vigorous, they’re able to deal with the disease much better.”
The hope is that these efforts will give the torreya a fighting chance and bounce back, Smith said.
An article on the Torreya Tree of Life project appears in the journal Science online today.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.