Photo: Mapping the Wollemi Pine genome could take until the end of 2020. (ABC News: Jonathan Hair)
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Hidden in a top secret location within a national park near Sydney, are some of the rarest trees on earth — so rare that anyone found putting them at risk can be handed huge fines, or jailed.
It’s the first time the Wollemi Pine’s genome has been mapped
The tree is extremely endangered with only 140 plants left in the wild
The project aims to establish if the pine has the genetic infrastructure to defend itself against diseases
The severe safeguards are for good reason — the Wollemi Pine, a tree which outlived the dinosaurs, is so critically endangered that the wild population could be wiped out by disease in an instant.
But a new research project is aiming to unlock the secrets of the ancient species, by mapping its genome for the first time.
“There’s about 140 individual plants in the wild, and that’s it,” said David Crust from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“And the other thing that makes it really rare is it’s confined to a really small geographic area,” he said.
That geographic area is the Wollemi National Park, located to the north-west of Sydney.
Photo: The Wollemi Pine’s genome is twice the size of the human genome. (ABC News: Jonathan Hair)
Until recently, the Wollemi Pine was thought to be extinct because it was only found in fossils that were millions of years old.
But in 1994, ranger David Noble discovered the trees growing in the wild.
Since then, huge efforts have been made to protect the pines, including making their location top-secret and restricted — because they are extremely susceptible to disease.
“There’s really serious penalties … fines of up to $220,000 and imprisonment of up to two years for any act that endangers the plant,” Mr Crust said.
“The reason [the locations] are confidential is so we can protect the pines from any kind of disturbance or damage,” he said.
Researchers from the National Herbarium of New South Wales and Deakin University have teamed up to map the Wollemi’s genome — a huge task which could take until the end of next year.
Photo: The exact location of the pines is kept secret to protect them from damage. (Jaime Plaza/Botanic Gardens Trust)
It will help the scientists to better understand why the Wollemi’s wild population has declined to critical levels.
“The question we’re asking is, does the Wollemi Pine have the genetic infrastructure to provide resistance and a defence against those diseases,” Dr Maurizio Rossetto said.
“We’ll have a better understanding of how to manage it on site, but also how to translocate it into a new location, if that’s what we decide to do in the future,” he said.
“Maybe being in that location for such a long time, it didn’t need as much protection,” Larry Croft from Deakin University said.
The work is not easy — the pine’s genome is twice the size of the human genome.
When asked if there is a chance the Wollemi is not equipped to survive in the modern world, Dr Rossetto concedes it is a possibility.
“Unfortunately it is one of the possible reasons why it’s rare,” he said.
“It doesn’t have the genetic make-up to resist some of the introduced, or even the native natural diseases.”
If that’s the case, saving the Wollemi Pine’s wild population will take more than keeping its location top-secret.