UC Santa Cruz plant biologist Jarmila Pitterman studies an albino redwood tree
How many times do we parents of preschoolers hear that question each day? “WHY do birds fly? WHY does the wind blow? WHY do bees buzz? WHY are trees green? WHY do I have to eat my broccoli?”
“Because I SAID so.”
Science begins with our curiosity. The first step is to start asking questions, probably most often “Why?” and “How?” And as much as we wish it were different, in science, “because I said so” is never answer enough. You have to back up your case with some proof, or at least some compelling evidence. And even then, your case will likely not be accepted on its face as truth, but tested and re-tested, re-asked and re-proven via a time-tested set of agreed-upon steps. This is known as the Scientific Method: 1) Ask a question. 2) Construct a hypothesis. 3) Experiment. 4) Analyze your results 5) Repeat if necessary and draw your conclusions. 6) Communicate your findings. While we all come into our questions with personal or cultural beliefs, the scientific method attempts to remove the beliefs of the scientist when testing a hypothesis point the way towards a verifiable fact or facts.
Which, brings us to the rare and unusual albino redwood trees. We already know the facts about trees, right? We can usually answer the preschooler’s question about why trees are green. But what if the tree is anything but green?
We don’t actually have all the answers to that one. We can hypothesize that these ghosts of the forest must be mutants, and lack chlorophyll. But that’s the easy part. What we don’t know, is WHY they lack chlorophyll, and survive. That’s a trick that few trees anywhere in the world — if any– can pull off. So right now, we’re guessing. And we can do better.
That’s what the research scientists at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz are out to discover. Believe it or not, until now the Redwood genome has never been sequenced. Stanford geneticists want to pinpoint the mutation or mutations that cause these trees to be albino. Plant biologists from UC Santa Cruz seek to determine how these trees survive and grow without chlorophyll and its instrumental role in providing energy for the plant.
In the QUEST Science on the SPOT story “Revisiting Albino Redwoods, Cracking the Code,” we follow Stanford geneticists Ghia Euskirchen and Barry Starr from the redwood forests to the lab as they work to uncover the root of the mutation that causes albinism in redwood trees.
In another Science on the SPOT installment, “Revisiting Albino Redwoods, Biological Mystery,” we meet UC Santa Cruz plant biologist Jarmila Pitterman and tag along as she and her students study the inner workings of the unusual albino redwoods.
This story is just beginning. They’re only in step 3 in the process; experimentation. But in time, the redwood genome will be sequenced. We will know where the mutation is. We will know how these albino trees survive and grow. And in the process we may learn things about the genetic heritage of redwood trees. We may learn more about how all redwood trees live and grow. We may learn how redwood trees adapt to things such as disease or climate change. The answers are endless. They are just waiting for someone to ask: why?