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Vol. LXVI, No. 11
May 23, 2014
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Tree of Hippocrates Meets 21st Century Science at Dedication Ceremony

Tree of Hippocrates

The Tree of Hippocrates has a new life on the NIH campus and a new place in 21st century science.

A tree cloned from the one removed last year was planted in front of the National Library of Medicine during a ceremony that also included the unveiling of the first DNA barcode of the tree. The ceremony took place Apr. 25, which was both Arbor Day and DNA Day.

“We are in essence, through science, returning the Tree of Hippocrates to our campus and also renewing, reinvigorating and preserving this historic living monument for posterity,” said Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director.

The tree’s history on campus began in 1961 when the Greek ambassador attended the library’s dedication and presented a cutting from a descendant of the tree where Hippocrates is said to have taught his students. The tree was planted along Center Dr. in 1962 but a combination of problems, including weather and a fungal disease, took its toll. NIH chief landscape architect Lynn Mueller spent decades trying to restore the tree’s health while also exploring a clone. He eventually connected with the non-profit Champion Tree Project, now the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, which cloned the gift tree.

Participating in the planting of the new tree are (from l) Steve Craft of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive; Dr. David Lipman, director, NCBI; Dr. Donald Lindberg, director, NLM; Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director; Christos Panagapoulos, ambassador of Greece; F. Anthony Clifford, chief engineer, NIH; Lynn Mueller, chief landscape architect, NIH; Dr. Constantine Stratakis, scientific director, NICHD.

Participating in the planting of the new tree are (from l) Steve Craft of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive; Dr. David Lipman, director, NCBI; Dr. Donald Lindberg, director, NLM; Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director; Christos Panagapoulos, ambassador of Greece; F. Anthony Clifford, chief engineer, NIH; Lynn Mueller, chief landscape architect, NIH; Dr. Constantine Stratakis, scientific director, NICHD.

Photos: Bill Branson

“The National Library of Medicine and this tree grew up together,” said NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg. “My thanks go to the NIH and the people who looked after this tree and anticipated the need for cloning.”

Greek Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos also spoke to the crowd that included NIH’s Greek community. “It was 2,400 years ago on the small island of Cos that one of the brightest minds, not only of the period but throughout the ages, Hippocrates, used to gather his disciples around him under the shadow of a plane tree. And this tree lives in this great institution today. It took American ingenuity and dedication.”

Dr. Constantine Stratakis, NICHD scientific director, said, “As a Greek and as an American, as a physician scientist at the NIH, I take pride at this moment—the replanting of a living symbol of the father of medicine on the holy grounds of what is today the modern temple of medicine and science here at the NIH.”

Cloning isn’t the only 21st century twist to the tree’s story. DNA from the gift tree was used to create the first DNA barcode for the Tree of Hippocrates, which is an Oriental plane tree, Platanus orientalis (Platanus is the species commonly known as sycamore). A barcode is a fragment, or fragments, of a DNA sequence that can serve as a genetic fingerprint. Dr. Amy Driscoll sequenced the tree and produced the barcode. She is project director for the Smithsonian’s Barcode of Life Project. The sequence is available in the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD) and in GenBank, a comprehensive database of DNA sequences at NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information.

DNA barcode of the Tree of Hippocrates, Platanus orientalis
DNA barcode of the Tree of Hippocrates, Platanus orientalis

By comparing DNA sequence information that’s stored in these databases and exchanged over the Internet, scientists can further discoveries, explained NCBI director Dr. David Lipman. “For some species, the spread in the way they look is so extreme that at times scientists have called them different species. Only after we have the DNA sequence to compare, we see they actually are the same species.” Positive identification, he said, is important to conservation efforts, for example, and for basic research and the study of disease.

The new Tree of Hippocrates, surrounded by dogwoods, stands next to the herb garden in front of NLM. Mueller says landscape architects know a lot more about the Oriental plane tree today than when the first one was received.

“This tree does not normally grow here. It’s not in its DNA to fight the Maryland climate,” he said. “We’ll try to create the best environment we can and make up the difference with good landscape practices and lots of TLC.”

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