Quirks & Quarks

Long-lived trees may have found the cellular secret to theoretical immortality

Gingko biloba trees have evolved unique ways to get around aging process

Gingko biloba trees have evolved unique ways to get around aging process

This 840-year-old ginkgo tree is the oldest tree in Seoul, South Korea, which is worshipped by residents. (Kim Mi-Ok / AFP via Getty Images)

For most living things, getting older and dying are the facts of life that are programmed into our DNA.  That seems not to be the case for the Ginkgo biloba tree, which scientists say can theoretically live forever.

"The exciting thing about the ginkgo tree, from our research, is that we believe that it doesn't actually have that program built into it," said Richard Dixon in conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Dixon, a distinguished research professor of biological sciences at the University of North Texas in Denton, and his colleagues were curious how ginkgo trees can live for hundreds, even thousands of years.

In relation to the immunity of the plant against stress or disease, it was hard to tell a 600-year-old tree from a 20-year-old tree.- Richard Dixon, University of North Texas

They studied cells from vascular cambium, the layer of growing tissue between the bark and the wood of ginkgo trees that were approximately 20, 200 and 600 years old to see how active different genes related to aging were in these long-lived trees.

How ginkgo trees avoid the aging process

"I think our big surprise was what incredibly good shape the old trees were in," said Dixon.

They saw no evidence of the programmed cell death in the tree's vascular cambium cells. 

But he said what was even more surprising is they saw no sign of aging in the tree's immune system genes. 

People walk under ginkgo trees in Beijing, China. (VCG via Getty Images)

"Essentially, in relation to the immunity of the plant against stress or disease, it was hard to tell a 600-year-old tree from a 20-year-old tree," added Dixon.

On top of that, Dixon and his colleagues also discovered the Ginkgo biloba tree's abilities to photosynthesize and even reproduce were no different in the 600-year-old trees compared to the 20-year-old trees. 

Given that the oldest trees they studied were 600 years old, Dixon said he's not sure if ginkgo trees that reach a couple of thousand years old show signs of aging.

But according to their research, Dixon said under optimal conditions these trees potentially "could go on living for a very, very long time" — a trait he suspects may also hold true for other trees that can live for hundreds or thousands of years. 

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting

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