Scientists to examine DNA of George Washington trees

MOUNT VERNON, Va., The DNA collected from 13 trees at Mount Vernon, planted under George Washington's supervision, will be profiled and cataloged as the first step in the creation of a genetic database for specific ornamental trees.

While the human genome has been detailed in a worldwide effort by thousands of scientists, nothing similar has been done with trees, noted J. Dean Norton, director of horticulture at Mount Vernon. Norton has enlisted the aid of Virginia Tech and the USDA Forest Service's National Forest Genetic Electrophoresis Laboratory in Placerville, Calif., to use the Washington Trees as the beginnings of in-depth research into the genetics of a number of important tree species.

"This will be the start of a genetic database of these trees," said Norton. "George Washington was always experimenting, trying new ways of growing his crops. I think it's great that this 18th century site can still take the lead in research."

The 13 Washington Trees, the only trees now living that are known to have been planted at Washington's direction, are seven American Holly, one Canadian Hemlock, two Tulip Poplar, two White Ash, and one White Mulberry. Samples collected from 17 other trees of the same species at Mount Vernon and the surrounding area will also be evaluated in the project.

Norton contacted M.A. Saghai Maroof, a plant geneticist at Virginia Tech and an expert in the analysis of the DNA of plants, to help with the project.

"The genetic structure of plants are similar, but there are unique challenges in working with different types of plants," said Saghai Maroof. "My expertise is in discovering genes that provide disease resistance in agricultural crops. For this project, it was important to bring in a laboratory with the capacity and the expertise to deal with DNA of trees."

Saghai Maroof contacted the Forest Service laboratory.

Valerie Hipkins, director of the National Forest Genetic Electrophores

Contact: J. Dean Norton
Virginia Tech

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