Scientists crowdfund to save the Joshua tree by sequencing its genome

The Joshua Tree Genome Project is crowdfunding in an effort to save the iconic tree, victim of climate change, found only in the United States’ Mojave Desert.

The scientists and organisations involved in the Joshua Tree Genome Project are doing something unique: developing genetic tools that could save the Joshua tree from extinction. This unusual looking tree is found only in the hottest and driest place in North America, the Mojave Desert, in the southwestern United States. Important to the local Native American tribe for centuries, the iconic trees have become victims of climate change. Through crowdfunding the project aims to raise money to sequence the species’ genome, as scientists hope its DNA will reveal what is causing its rapid decline, as well as a cure to allow it to survive in a very different climatic future. The fundraising goal of ten thousand dollars has already been reached, but additional money continues to be raised.

The study of genomes

The genome is the total set of DNA that an organism inherits from its parents and its sequencing will give scientists a clear view of the genetic building blocks of the Joshua tree, which control how it grows and responds to its environment. This information will hopefully identify specific aspects that are important for Joshua trees’ interactions with pollinating moths, also found in the Mojave Desert, as well as its physiological and morphological adaptations to the desert environment. The information will help identify which populations of the plant have the potential for adapting to a changing climate.


The history of Joshua trees

The species (Yucca Brevifolia) is the largest of the yucca family of plants. The evergreen tree with spiky leaves is four to twelve metres tall, takes fifty to sixty years to mature, with a growth of five to eight centimeters a year, and can live to the age of 150. It is thought that Mormon pioneers gave it the name “Joshua” because they believed the tree mimicked the Old Testament prophet Joshua waving them toward the promised land.

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The importance of moths

Joshua trees provide food and a habitat for countless living creatures. Numerous species of birds nest in them and the desert night lizard lives in their fallen branches. Joshua tree flowers, fruits and seeds are food for many animals. Of utmost importance is the symbiotic relationship the tree has with a small insect: the female Yucca Moth (Tegeticula). She collects pollen with her feet and tentacles after laying eggs in the flowers she pollinates, then farms Joshua tree seeds as nutrition for her offspring. The trees sacrifices these seeds in exchange for efficient and reliable pollination. Naturalist Charles Darwin called the phenomenal relationship “the most wonderful case of fertilisation ever described.”


The search for answers

The Joshua Tree Genome Project is just the first stage of a long process. It is no easy task, and with current technology the sequencing will produce nearly 700 million snippets of DNA sequence data that will then have to be patiently assembled. The final results will hopefully hold all the answers needed to save the strange yet dearly cherished Joshua tree.

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