CREW Plant Lab is Cracking the Nut of Oak Conservation

Posted November 9, 2023 by Megan Philpott

CREW’s Plant Division has spent the last year trying to crack the nut of oak conservation! In August of 2022, we received a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for our project, Advancing the Science of Conservation Cryobiotechnology: Using Oaks as a Model for Improving the In Vitro Technologies Supporting Exceptional Plant Conservation. Seed banking is one of the most powerful tools we have to preserve plants for the future, but exceptional species (CREW’s focus) can’t be seed-banked using conventional methods. All oaks are considered exceptional species and need alternative methods like cryopreservation for long-term storage. This project will help us to save oak species with science by allowing us to dig deep into the factors affecting survival.

oak plant shoot

The first step of cryopreservation is initiating healthy shoots into tissue culture, but for oaks this is often difficult and unpredictable. This past spring, CREW received shoots from eight species of oaks, six threatened and two common, from 18 partner organizations across the United States. Over a period of about three months, we were able to start over 1,200 test tubes of new oak shoots from these shipments! In spring 2024 and 2025, we’ll repeat this experiment starting shoots from the exact same trees each year. This unique project design will allow us to look at factors such as species, genotype, habitat, and even environmental and weather conditions to determine how best to improve our survival rates. This is a monumental effort across the United States to help improve the conservation of oak species. In addition to our work in tissue culture and cryopreservation, a University of Cincinnati graduate student will be investigating any genetic changes that occur during the initiation of tissue culture and subsequent growth.

oakAll this work can’t be done by one single lab, and our grant has allowed us to partner with three labs across the United States and Mexico to support their work in oak tissue culture as well. This not only allows us to expand the scope of our grant, but supports researchers both here and in Mexico, the pinnacle of oak biodiversity, to develop their expertise in oak conservation. This project also allows us to build on our work to update and expand the List of Exceptional Plants and to develop new online tools to help researchers across the globe working with exceptional species. We’re a leader in oak conservation here at the Cincinnati Zoo, and we’re working to help support leaders in other gardens across the globe as well. Using this collaborative approach, we can help ensure that these iconic species are around for generations to come.