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17 July 2001
The discovery of two of the world's oldest and rarest tree species on the NSW far north coast has highlighted the vital genetic research being undertaken by the Australian Plant DNA Bank established recently on Southern Cross University's Lismore campus.

It is the first such facility in Australia's history and the material stored in its -80ยบ C environment will be used to research and identify the characteristics and relationships of plant species from around the country.

The Bank, which works closely with bodies such as the Queensland Herbarium and National Parks & Wildlife Service, will eventually contain the DNA of all of Australia's 25,000 species of flora.

It was selected to be the repository for the genetic samples taken from the rare Nightcap Oak (Eidothea hardeniana), found at an secret location in late 2000, and the endangered Fontainea oraria, the last ten remaining mature examples of which have been found close to a planned housing development at Lennox Head. The living populations of the trees are known to exist in only the most restricted habitats. In both cases, propagation efforts have begun, with samples of genetic material having also been taken for scientific analysis.

According to the Director of SCU's Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics, Professor Robert Henry, both of the rare rainforest species are of great evolutionary significance and understanding their genetic makeup is an essential part of the preservation and recovery-plan process.

"The Eidothea is a tall tree from the Nightcap rainforest that has been found to exist in very small numbers and in a very specific and restricted habitat," Professor Henry said. "Since its discovery in the wild, it has been seen by only a handful of people, and not surprisingly it has excited interest similar to that generated by the Wollemi Pine."

Professor Henry said that belonging to the Protaecae family potentially made it an ancient rainforest link to the better known Banksias and Grevilleas that flourished in drier conditions and it could provide vital knowledge about the evolution of Australia's flora.

"Exploring those links will rely significantly upon genetic analysis and this must be preceded by the collection and safe storage of DNA material. In order to better manage and preserve our botanical heritage we need to understand the diversity of Australia's plant life," he explained.

"In the case of the Fontainea, a species which produces separate male and female trees, it appears likely that encroaching population pressure will mitigate against the trees' long-term survival in the present location," Professor Henry added.

"Optimal propagation material has been selected from the information obtained by DNA analysis. These are likely to be planted in suitable and protected sites elsewhere, and DNA material taken from each of the ten trees that exist. This is now safe and sound in the Australian Plant DNA Bank and waiting to reveal what may be some of the most valuable secrets in our nation's natural history.

For further details, please contact Professor Robert Henry (02) 6620 3010 or Dr. Maurizio Rossetto on (02) 6620 3458, or Mr Robin Osborne, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, (02) 6620 3039 Mobile: 0418 431 484 Email: [email protected]