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New plant cryopreservation facility gets $2M funding


Guelph, ON – Deep-freezing living tissue from the world’s endangered trees and banking the material for future use are among the scientific possibilities at an expanding University of Guelph (U of G) research institute.

A cryopreservation facility will be created at the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation (GRIPP) using a new $2-million donation from its founders. The funding will also allow the novel research institute to put down permanent roots on the U of G campus.

GRIPP was created a year ago to develop innovative ways to conserve threatened plant life. It was supported by an initial $1.5-million donation from the Gosling Foundation, a non-profit organization for ecological preservation and environmental education co-founded by Philip and Susan Gosling. Now they have increased the funding in order to equip the institute with cutting-edge technologies and facilities.

Philip Gosling, a naturalist and philanthropist, said it’s time to “get a grip” on biodiversity loss. “We can despair about this, we can regard it as inevitable, or we can say: ‘Let’s do something, let’s save what we can while we can.’ And I think we can do it. We can do research, we can start developing and cloning disease-resistant trees, we can understand how trees and plants develop resistance. We can help restore and maintain wildlife habitat,” he said.

The need to conserve endangered plant species is crucial and urgent, said Prof. Praveen Saxena, a renowned plant scientist and GRIPP’s director. Up to half of the world’s plants face extinction within three decades from disease, pollution, climate change and other human activities, said Saxena, a professor in U of G’s Department of Plant Agriculture.

“Such rapid loss of plant diversity threatens the health and resilience of all ecosystems. It’s happening fast, and most trees are affected,” he says.

GRIPP will conduct long-term tissue preservation research, education and service. The institute will be able to conserve a range of living tissue from threatened species and regenerate large plant populations when needed, making the facility unique in Canada.

The facility is now being built and will officially open in the fall. Ongoing research under Saxena’s supervision has already garnered international attention. Saxena, plant agriculture professor Al Sullivan, and their research team have developed efficient ways to grow and preserve a range of plants, including storing seeds or shoots at extremely low temperatures.

In a breakthrough last spring, they cloned American elm trees that had survived repeated epidemics of their biggest killer — Dutch elm disease. They are now developing cloning and cryopreservation technologies for other threatened tree species, including ash, maple and chestnut.

GRIPP scientists will also work with other institutions across Canada and internationally on biodiversity conservation.

“This is advanced science that can make a difference socially, culturally and scientifically,” said Kevin Hall, Guelph’s vice-president (research), who helped establish the institute. “It has the potential to start a whole new vein of research at our University that would help better the planet and distinguish us from other universities that do plant research.”