Scientists aim to make Liberty Tree a perennial

Last Colonial poplar readied for cloning at Annapolis ceremony

June 04, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

They came from as far as Boston, Richmond, Va., and Harrisburg, Pa. As near as Towson, Baltimore and a couple of blocks away.

With the backdrop of Revolutionary War re-enactors and a fife and drum band, dignitaries from the 13 states that were America's original colonies, Maryland research scientists and more than 100 onlookers gathered yesterday under Annapolis' storied Liberty Tree as their forefathers did centuries ago.

But this time they were taking part in a historic event of 20th-century proportions: cloning the nation's last living Liberty Tree for generations to come.

"Through the miracle of modern genetics, we commence its cloning as a living memorial to those who have struggled over the years since its birth to define the meaning of liberty," said Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland state archivist, as he welcomed the crowd.

The majestic tulip poplar tree on the tranquil lawns of St. John's College dates to 1600 and was anointed as a bastion of liberty in Maryland in 1765, when colonists began gathering under it to protest oppressive British rule. The 13 colonies each had a Liberty Tree, but all except Maryland's were destroyed, either by vengeful British troops in the 1770s or the toll of time.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000 decided this year to usher in the millennium by cloning the poplar and giving the other 49 states their own nouveau Liberty Tree.

"This is such a wonderful place, America," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, commission chairman. "If the bell rang today, who would come under that tree to speak out? These words called `liberty,' `freedom' we're so lucky in this place called America that we take all these things for granted."

And with that, the clipping began.

Schaefer, together with researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park's College of Agriculture, shimmied up the tree via cherry picker and cut off 10-inch shoot samples that were wrapped in aluminum foil and frozen for transportation.

Gary Coleman, a University of Maryland assistant professor and poplar cloning expert who is heading the effort, said he was "pretty confident" of success but warned that the older a tree, the harder it is to clone.

The shoots will be sterilized as soon as they are taken to the laboratory, but he said their bleaching procedure may not work on some forms of bacteria and fungi that are older and more resistant. He estimated that they will lose 20 percent of the 100 to 200 shoots harvested during the decontamination process and another 20 to 30 percent during cloning.

"Hopefully, half of them will yield something," said Coleman, who said the oldest tree he has cloned was 25 years old. "It's not common to clone a tree this old. They are very difficult to clone."

Glendening will present the cloned trees to officials from other states at the end of the six-month process. Sarah Ellis, director of Boston 2000, a group that is celebrating the millennium by establishing a Liberty Tree Park on the grounds of their original tree, said they are eagerly awaiting the addition of a Maryland cloned poplar.

"I am absolutely overwhelmed by this tree," she said. "The Frenchman Lafayette said, `The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree.' "

For some in the crowd, however, the tree's significance seemed to elude them a little. Mary Cait Manubay, 10, who sat on the grass with her 120 fourth-grade classmates from Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Towson, looked perplexed at the fanfare surrounding the sinewy tree. Her class had happened on the ceremony during a field trip to the state capital.

Mary Cait said she had not heard about the Liberty Tree and didn't know what it was.

"They didn't tell us in school," she said, giggling.

But all was not lost. Mary Cait took a stab at what Liberty Trees meant and why they were important.

"Maybe they're trees that are important to the people that live here " she said, pausing, "because they represent liberty?"

The Liberty Tree cloning

Here is one of the methods University of Maryland biotechnicians will use to make clones of the 400-year-old Liberty Tree at St. John's College to give to the other 49 states:

Step 1: Biotechnicians are hoisted to the top of the tree to cut 100 to 200 10-inch-long new shoots that have grown this year at the tips of branches. They wrap the shoots in aluminum foil and freeze them for transport to College Park laboratories. That will keep them cool, healthy and moist.

Step 2: In the lab, they will sterilize the shoots in a bleach solution for 20 to 30 minutes. Then they will place the tip of the shoot -- about a quarter of an inch -- in a gel containing plant-growth nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, vitamins and some amino acids. The shoot tips in the gel will be stored in a room with constant soft light where the temperature is kept at 72. The air is filtered and sterile so that no bacteria are introduced into the environment.

Step 3: After four to six weeks, some buds should appear on the shoots. These shoots and buds are transferred to another gel with more growth nutrients.

Step 4: After another four to six weeks, new shoots should grow from the buds. Once they're long enough, they will be transferred to another gel material with different nutrients to stimulate growth of roots.

Step 5: After still another four to six weeks, the shoots will be transferred to soil and subjected to high humidity so that they can acclimatize to outside conditions.

Step 6: After about two weeks in high humidity, they will be transferred to a greenhouse, where they will grow until scientists think they're strong enough to be distributed.

The process is expected to take six months. In two similar methods, different parts of the clipped shoots will be used. One uses its leaves or buds, and the other uses the stem.

The University of Maryland is charging Celebration 2000 $1,000 for the cloning.

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