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American Forest Before the Chestnut Blight

Once upon a time, American deciduous forests were filled with a magnificent tree, the American chestnut tree.  It is estimated that, prior to the twentieth century, a quarter of the trees in the forests of Appalachia were chestnut trees.  The trees grew to 30 metres (98 ft) in height and were prized for giving stout timber and large quantities of delicious nuts.  They were also renowned for their beauty.  But then, something bad happened.  In 1904, some Asian chestnut trees were planted in the Bronx (in what is now the Bronx zoo).  These Chinese chestnut trees had a pathogenic fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, living on them.  Chestnut tree species of Asia have evolved some defenses to this rapidly spreading fungus, but the two American species were completely unprepared.  By 1950, the blight had killed more than four billion trees and only strange isolated single specimens and sad still-living (yet undead) stumps remained.  The chestnut blight opened our eyes to the perils of invasive species in a world of almost-instant shipping (although I don’t think we have yet fully understand how pervasive and potentially dangerous fungi can be), it also marked an irreversible change to our beautiful forests…

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Evidence of the Chestnut Blight!

Except maybe not.  Molecular biologists, mycologists, and arborists have been quietly working for years to hybridize a blight-resistant modern American chestnut tree.  They failed at hybridizing a vigorous tree with the desired characteristics of the original American chestnut trees, so they turned to transgenic tinkering and this technology has yielded results.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry has utilized the same sort of technology behind genetically modified crops (like BT rapeseed and such) in order to create American chestnut trees which have a gene from wheat that helps the trees survive and tolerate Cryphonectria parasitica.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is readying an army of these genetically altered trees to go into the wild forests and reseed North America as it used to be, but their plan is not without controversy.

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Some opponents worry (understandably) that bringing back the chestnut will represent “a massive and irreversible experiment” on our living forests.  Additionally, as we know from the hysterical response to transgenic crops in Europe and even here, many people are extremely emotional and ill-informed about gene-manipulation technologies (probably because the phrase “gene-manipulation technologies” sounds so much like a 1950s horror movie tagline).   Transgenic blight-resistant American chestnut trees still need regulatory review from the Food and Drug Administration (and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency) before they can be planted and allowed to disperse pollen.  Such a process may take many years.  Yet tree lovers and concerned ecologists point out that the near-extinction level mass deaths of American chestnuts was caused by humankind’s actions and choices.  And more blights are arriving every year to destroy other cherished species of trees.  We live in a world of emerald ash borers, Dutch Elm Disease, spotted lantern flies, gypsy tent moths, and oak wilt.  If we don’t start doing something, the only tree left might be the diabolical invasive tree of heaven (I can’t believe nobody commented on that post! Am I the only person to despise that nightmarish monster?).

The regulators are starting to analyze the proper course of action, and I guess we will be hearing more from them, but, in the meantime, what do you think?

 

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