Redwood clones headed for France

It's too soon to speak of the towering redwood forests of Kansas. Or of these 200-foot skyscraper trees transforming the landscape in the south of France.

But perhaps not much too soon.

So far, tourists must trek to northern California to bring home pictures of the family beside drive-through trees. This could change.

Over the next few months, two groves of redwood clones will be planted at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus. It's a coming-out ceremony, of sorts, for baby redwoods conceived in test tubes - the first cone- and needle-bearing tree type to be thus cloned.

The process could change the face of the lumbering industry in a number of ways. One idea: Strains of trees could be cloned to thrive where the breed couldn't survive before.

The French, for example, are eager to adapt the redwood to their own climate, notes Ernest A. Ball, the UCI professor emeritus who struck up the process and is working out its kinks.

The test-tube trees are prodigies. The oldest of the plantlets have been growing for only three or four years, but they have so far grown twice as fast as normal trees.

Thus, since normal redwoods reach a full height of around 200 feet in 40 or 50 years, the clones - if their growth so far is any indication - will mature in 20 to 25 years.

These are supertrees. They have been cloned from tissues of about 120 of the tallest, straightest, and fastest-growing trees with the fewest limbs from over a million candidates. Simpson Timber Company, which sponsored Dr. Ball's research, foresees at least 50 percent more usable wood per acre from cloned forests than from the traditional, seed-grown kind. And perhaps much more.

Simpson Timber's research manager, Jim Rydelius, remarked as the first trees were planted at UCI, that Dr. Ball's work will ''revolutionize the (lumbering) industry in the region and, hopefully, in the world.''

Cloning plants is not new. Some ornamentals - like African violets and orchids - have been cloned for years, and so have certain fruit trees. The point of making clones is to make a genetic duplicate of a single parent with good genetic traits. It takes the chance out of the wild, hit-or-miss, natural kind of reproduction.

Now Dr. Ball is trying to clone Douglas fir. He went through more than a thousand variations of the redwood process during three years of research before striking the right test-tube environment in 1978. ''We're not really at first base yet with the Douglas fir,'' he notes.

At the same time, he is pushing on with research more (''I hesitate to use the word,'' says Mr. Rydelius) ''exotic.'' This is mainly female gametophyte reproduction, a process well-developed for corn which has made it possible to grow the crop from the Arctic Circle to the Equator. The process produces pure lines genetically, cutting down still further on variation between a parent plant and its progeny.

To make the cloning of redwoods pay, there are some hurdles to clear. The process is still touchy and not all tissues cultures successfully grow into plantlets. Dr. Ball, now a research biologist at UC Santa Cruz and still sponsored by Simpson, is working on it. And since Simpson Timber plants about a million new redwoods a year, it needs a mass production laboratory to handle at least that many test tubes.

How far will cloning research go? Dr. Ball is sensitive to the public reaction genetic research pricks up. Cloning in humans is still a 100 years away , he told a television reporter. ''Although I'm convinced it will be done someday.''

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