Seedlings growing in the John Innes Center Ash Dieback Lab have been adorned with unexpected names. According to their tags, the shoots are called Suzie and Chrissie and Aretha, as well as Kate, Dolly and Nina.
It’s odd nomenclature for a world-leading crop research center – although plant health expert Professor James Brown has an explanation: “These seedlings are part of Diva: our research Diversity In Ash, so we decided to name them after real divas – and in particular the divas of my time: Suzie Quatro, Aretha Franklin, Kate Bush, Chrissie Hynde, Dolly Parton and others like them.
Such rocky roots are intriguing — though Brown points out that this ash seedling research has a very serious purpose. He and his colleague, Dr Elizabeth Orton, hope to help Britain offset the repercussions of ash dieback which now threatens to eradicate up to 95% of the trees it infects in this country.
The disease first emerged in the UK a decade ago when experts predicted it could kill swaths of the country’s woodlands and forests. Now, those warnings are coming true as more ash trees succumb to infections.
Ash dieback is caused by a fungal pathogen, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, and originated in Asia before spreading to Europe, where it has already killed or seriously damaged a quarter of the species in southern Sweden, and destroyed more than 80% of young ash trees in Norway. Now Britain has begun to suffer in the same way as the disease continues to spread in the woods. Huge trunks of decaying dead ash tower over trails and clearings, threatening visitors and forest workers.
“There is no doubt that ash dieback is having a real impact, and it raises many management issues for those responsible for our woods and forests,” Brown added. “It is undoubtedly a very serious problem, but it would be wrong to say that the ashes are going to be wiped out in this country – it is certainly not the case.”
This point was supported by Orton: “Yes, a lot of trees are doing very badly and dying, but don’t forget that there are about a hundred million ash trees in this country, and several million will still survive if you don’t.” not succumbing to withering. : It’s a very small percentage, but it’s still quite a large number of trees – enough to make a difference.
Brown and Orton estimate that between 2% and 10% of ash trees show resistance to dieback. “You can stand in a wood where there are dead ashes around you and right in the middle you can also see young ash trees that are clearly healthy and unaffected by disease,” Brown said. “It shows that some trees are probably protected by some sort of genetic resistance.”
Such resistance alone would ensure that the ash tree – which can reach 35 meters in height and form distinctive domed canopies – would eventually be restored to our forests, even if it could take decades. However, the John Innes Center team hopes to speed up this process. “We went into the woods and looked for ash trees that were surrounded by trees that were infected but were not themselves affected by dieback thanks to their resistance,” Orton said.
Seed was collected from these healthy ash trees, and 150 of them are now grown in trays at the John Innes Centre. “Some of them look very promising – the Chrissie line looks particularly healthy,” added Orton.
Next year, these seedlings will be planted, cultivated and pollinated among themselves. “From these we would expect to produce particularly healthy and disease resistant ash trees,” Brown said. “These would then provide seeds that could be used to restore the ashes to Britain.
“We would consider providing these seeds to landowners, farmers, conservation groups or anyone else interested in bringing this wonderful tree back to our forests.”