Biology Department Seminar on “Conservation of Urban Forest Health and Sustainability via Tree Genetic Diversity”

Posted on 9/4/2015 8:36:09 AM

The Biology Department Fall Seminar Series will begin on September 11, 2015, with distinguished guest speaker Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Morton’s presentation will be in the HUB, Susquehanna room at 11:00 a.m.

The title of her seminar presentation is “Conservation of Our Urban Forest Health and Sustainability via Tree Genetic Diversity.”

An urban environment rich with trees is highly valued for its aesthetic qualities as well as its environmental benefits, such as reducing summer cooling costs, carbon sequestration, intercepting
airborne pollutants, and reducing storm water runoff. In the United States, urban forests are estimated to contain about 3.8 billion trees, with an estimated structural asset value of $2.4 trillion
(Nowak et al. 2002). Billions of federal, local, and private dollars are being spent annually on management, labor, and the trees themselves as part of tree revitalization projects, and millions more are being spent by individual homeowners to improve their environment and property values.

Despite this multibillion-dollar urban tree economy, little work has been done to understand urban tree genetic diversity as an issue of vulnerability, or to examine the long-term impacts of urban tree genetic diversity on the sustainability of the urban environment.

Work conducted by Cynthia Morton, PhD, in 2008 compared the level of genetic variation in London Plane trees already existing in the Pittsburgh area with trees of the same species currently available from three commercial nurseries. The genetic diversity was far greater in the older urban tree samples compared to that of the nursery samples, indicating that the nursery industry has been selectively cloning to produce new trees. While cloning trees is in itself a benign practice, doing so on a mass scale without a proper understanding of the implications of drastically reducing the genetic diversity of urban forests is ill-advised.

A greater understanding of urban tree genetic diversity will allow policy makers, city planning and environmental agencies, and the nursery industry to make informed decisions and recommendations to improve practices for maintaining a robust tree landscape for the future.

As a botanist, Morton has worked locally and internationally to collect specimens for phylogenetic analysis of molecular and morphological data. The range of projects include angiosperm phylogenetics, redefining the citrus family, constructing genomic maps, investigating park and nursery tree genetics, and cleaning ground water.

Morton’s research has been featured in newspapers and videos and has been published in peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Department of Biology