Some time ago I wrote a post suggesting the need for genetic engineering to endow American trees with resistance to the introduced, non-native pests that are ravaging our forests. Recently I learned about progress in a project designed to do precisely that.
A century ago. the American chestnut was one of the foundations of the eastern North American forest; indeed, in some areas of Connecticut (the state in which I live) American chestnuts once constituted 50% of the hardwoods. In the early years of the 20th century, however, a fungal blight introduced accidentally from Asia killed nearly all of the mature trees. Today, almost all that survives is occasional sprouts from the roots of blight-felled trees.
Efforts have been made since the 1930’s at least to breed blight-resistant chestnuts by crossing resistant Chinese chestnuts with our vulnerable natives. It has been a slow process because trees take so long to mature sexually. Success has been limited, and what blight resistant trees that have resulted are no longer entirely of the American type genetically.
But scientists at the State University of New York Syracuse School of Environmental Science and Forestry some time ago introduced a single gene from a wheat plant into American chestnuts that has allowed the resulting trees to tolerate without damage the blight fungus. Currently, SUNY Syracuse is partnering with the New York chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation in applying to the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA and the FDA to have the trees “deregulated” – that is, to secure permission to begin crossing the transgenic trees with wild-type American chestnuts and create a broad gene pool of resistant trees to re-introduce back into the woods.
Allen Nichols, president of the New York chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, says that he hopes to receive the go-ahead from the EPA within 3-5 years. If this happens, a magnificent native will be returned to our woods, and a precedent set for dealing with other introduced tree diseases and epidemics. Indeed, SUNY Syracuse is already at work on an American Elm that is resistant to the Dutch Elm Disease.
For more information visit www.acf.org or contact the NY chapter of TACF at