Dr. Cynthia Morton
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Curator of Botany
Assuring Urban Forest Health and Sustainability via Tree Genetic Diversity
As a botanist, Dr. Cynthia Morton, curator of botany at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has worked locally and internationally to collect specimens for phylogenetic analysis of molecular and morphological data. The range of projects include redefining the citrus family, constructing genomic maps, cleaning ground water, and investigating park and nursery tree genetics.
Her work 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 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 planners, environmental agencies, and the nursery industry to make informed decisions and recommendations to improve practices for maintaining a robust tree landscape for the future.
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. Billions of federal, local and private dollars are spent annually on management, labor, and the trees themselves as part of tree revitalization projects, and millions more are spent by individual homeowners to improve their environment and property values. Despite this multi-billion 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.
Morton's research has been featured in newspapers, videos, and in peer-reviewed scientific articles.
Recorded Monday, October 6, 2014 at Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA.