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Susie discovers secret of eternal yew

Susie Beck studied some of the oldest trees in Sussex for her science degree, and found elements in their DNA that had not been documented before.

Susie, 22, who graduates with BSc in Biology and German at this year's graduation ceremony, studied the genetic diversity of yew trees dating back 1,800 years in Stanmer Park, Brighton,

Susie, who achieved a "first" for her project, says:  "I was looking to see if trees contained pseudo-viral elements, which are like viruses but don't actually infect the DNA of the tree. These have previously only been found in flowering plants. We didn't know if trees also contained them, but my research showed that they did

She adds:  "I chose to look at yew trees because of their significant age. Another aspect of the project was to look at the possibility of mutations occurring within a single ancient individual tree. Results suggest that this may be occurring which could indicate that these "pseudo-viral"  elements may indeed possess true viral, infectious properties. However the mystery remains as to whether or not they are able to infect the DNA like viruses, in a similar fashion to H.I.V in humans, or if they have been present from as far back as the beginning of multi-cellular life. Their purpose and importance is yet to be understood." 

Her research is likely to feed into postdoctoral study being carried out by the Biology department. Susie plans to take a year out before taking up a postgraduate course in medicine.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 20 July 2009