Athens, Ga. – Scott A. Merkle, professor of forest biotechnology at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, has been recognized by the Society of American Foresters, the industry’s national professional society, with the prestigious Barrington Moore Award. This award recognizes outstanding achievement in biological research leading to the advancement of forestry.
“Scott’s primary motivation for his research has been the improvement of southern hardwoods and conifers for industrial and ornamental purposes,” said Jim Sweeney, associate dean at the Warnell School. “However, his work has expanded to include significant advances in environmental remediation.”
Merkle’s research has concentrated on adapting the phenomenon known as somatic embryogenesis for propagating clones and genetically manipulating southern forest species. Somatic embryogenesis is the process of inducing plant reproduction in a controlled environment, rather than through natural processes, and allows scientists to select or eliminate particular genes that support desirable or non-desirable characteristics. The laboratory process also allows for the introduction of foreign genetic material that can help a species protect itself from invasive pests or diseases.
Since his laboratory’s first report of somatic embryogenesis in yellow-poplar in 1986, Merkle has accomplished somatic embryogenesis in 10 forest tree species and two hybrids, a record unmatched by any other laboratory in the world. Trees for which Merkle’s lab was the first to report somatic embryogenesis include important commercial species such as yellow-poplar and sweetgum; popular ornamental trees such as southern magnolia; rare species such as pyramid magnolia; one species under attack by a devastating disease (American chestnut); and two hybrids with potential ornamental and industrial uses (yellow-poplar x Chinese tulip tree and sweetgum x Formosan sweetgum).
A portion of Merkle’s research program has been dedicated to using biotechnology to restore the American chestnut, once the primary species of the Appalachian Forest until a fungal disease known as chestnut blight was introduced into the U.S. around the beginning of the 20th Century.
Merkle has pioneered the use of somatic embryogenesis and gene transfer to lay the groundwork for engineering the tree with anti-fungal genes. His lab was the first to report regeneration of the tree via somatic embryogenesis and the first to use these cultures to produce transgenic chestnut material. Recently, his lab has received grants from ArborGen LLC, the Institute for Forest Biotechnology and the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research to continue and expand this research with American chestnut.
The Society of American Foresters award is named after Barrington Moore, a prominent member of the first generation of American foresters who had a strong interest in the establishment of a sound biological basis for the practice of forestry.