Two Minutes: Saving Portugal's Corks!

One of the great things about the international nature of the Fair is the insight some projects provide on the problems facing their home countries and regions. Take for instance the team project in Plant Science by Eduardo Manuel Soares Guerreiro, Estela Da Silva Guerreiro, and Rita Catarina Ramos Pimenta dos Santos Silva from Odemira, Portugal.

The bark of a cork oak tree

Their research addresses the causes of a devastating condition known as "decline" that has wreaked havoc on cork oak forests in Portugal and threatens the country's cork industry. For perspective, Portugal has about a third of the world's cork oaks, and it produces over half of the world's supply of cork. The industry is such an important part of the country's economy and culture that it's illegal to cut down a cork tree in Portugal. And understandably so: Each tree can only be harvested every nine or ten years and takes more than two decades to mature.

During a break at this year's ISEF, we had a chance to speak with Eduardo and Estela about their project, and gave them the two-minute project explanation challenge. Their response is below the fold.

Eduardo: My name is Eduardo, I come from Portugal, and I have 18 years old. Estela and Rita were my teammates for this project. Our project is about the Cork Tree and the Holm Oak. These trees are very important for our country on many levels: economic, social, and cultural. But they are dying from a disease known as decline. The disease is characterized by the yellowing of the leaves, which then start to fall off the branches. The tree starts to dry out, from the outside to the inside. We've been worried about this problem, and in our school, with our biology teacher, the best biology teacher in the world, we started a project to try to figure out what causes the decline of these trees.

Estela: My name is Estela, I'm 17, and we did a couple of experiments to see if the fungus that is supposed to attack the stems is really the main cause of the decline. So, we started by seeing if the fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi, affects the seeds' germination. So we infected seeds of Cork Trees and Holm Oak seeds and sowed them in non-infested and infested soil. In the infested soil, we did a fungus shake, where we put the fungus and the water in the soil. And then we had another experiment to see if the fungus caused the decline itself. That is, we looked at infested and non-infested Cork Trees and Holm Oaks to see the differences between them. And then we did an experiment to see if instead of the fungus, unfavorable environmental conditions could cause the decline. So, we did the same thing in the other experiments, but this time we put the seeds in more water, with a drenching system. We have good results. The fungus, it really attacks the seeds' germination. The seeds germinate less in the infested lots than in non-infested lots. And for the seeds in the lots, the fungus is the main cause of the decline because we have plants in the infested lots and the non-infested lots.

Eduardo: Scientists in Portugal have been studying this problem more than ten years, but unfortunately there is little agreement among them. Some say the main cause is bad environmental conditions like wet winters, dry summers, and bad management of the soils, and others say that the main cause is the fungus. So, essentially we have figured out that the fungus is the main cause. It causes the root rot of both species and causes the decline disease. Now, we're experimenting with known treatments for Phytophthora cinnamomi infestation in other species to see if they are also effective for the cork trees.

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