How GMOs Might Save The American Chestnut Tree

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A woman and a child pick up chestnuts on a field near Heidelberg, southwestern Germany, on Friday, Oct. 3, 2008. (Daniel Roland/AP)
A woman and a child pick up chestnuts on a field near Heidelberg, southwestern Germany, on Friday, Oct. 3, 2008. (Daniel Roland/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

To save the American chestnut tree, researchers want to release genetically engineered trees into the wild to reproduce. It would be a first — a possible breakthrough and an irreversible experiment.


William Powell, director of the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project. Professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Roosevelt Wild Life Station scientist-in-residence. (@ChestnutPowell)

Rachel Smolker, co-director of Biofuelwatch (@biofuelwatch). Organizer with Global Justice Ecology Project. (@rsmolker)

Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. (@HankGreelyLSJU)

From The Reading List

Endless Thread: "The 'Most Ambitious' Species Restoration Project In The World" — "You wouldn't know it from looking up at the tree from the side of the road, but the American chestnut is at the center of one of the most nutty stories of near extinction and resurrection ever heard in the United States. It involves genetic engineering, warring factions of tree enthusiasts, and a mysterious, destructive force that was first discovered at the Bronx Zoo.

"Up until the early 1900s, American chestnuts dominated the eastern forests of North America. They could grow up to 125 feet tall and 16 feet wide and were so big that loggers sometimes used actual dynamite to blow them up into smaller pieces. But it wasn’t just that the individual trees were large. The species as a whole had a massive footprint. They used to be so common along the East Coast of the United States that people would say a squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia on chestnut tree branches alone without ever touching the ground.

"Chestnut wood — naturally rot-resistant, lightweight and straight-grained — was also highly valued, used for everything from utility poles to railroad ties to houses. But the gem of the American chestnut was really the nuts themselves. And the nuts were particularly important to Southern Appalachia, says historian Ralph Lutts:

"'It was not just a food that was a treat to them. It was a central part of their lives economically, particularly the very poor. And when you had the time of plenty in the autumn when the nuts were falling like manna from heaven, it was almost a community celebration.' "


Christian Science Monitor: "GMO could bring back the American chestnut. But should it?" — "Edward Kashmer has fond memories of the American chestnut tree. As a child in the 1930s in western Pennsylvania, he and his playmates would make use of the small, sweet nuts produced by the trees.

"'We couldn’t afford golf balls,' he says. 'So we used chestnuts.'

"Today, on the wall of his apartment in a retirement community in Jamesville, New York, is a regulator clock with an American chestnut cabinet that he says he carved in the 1990s. Mr. Kashmer, who says he owned a woodworking business for 20 years, points out the straightness and closeness of the wood’s grain. 'What makes it perfect are the wormholes,' he says indicating the pinpoints bored by insects.

"American chestnut trees were once plentiful from Maine to Georgia. But around 1904, a fungus clinging to a Japanese chestnut tree came to New York City. The spores spread on the wind, and within a few decades the American chestnut was all but wiped out. Most memories of mature, living trees reside only in the minds of people in their 80s and 90s."

Stop GE Trees: "Biotechnology For Forest Health? The Test Case Of The Genetically Engineered American Chestnut" — "The American chestnut, once a dominant species in eastern North American forests, was decimated in the first half of the 20th century by a fungal blight (Cryphonectria parasitica, also referred to as chestnut blight) and logging. Researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are developing a genetically engineered (GE) blight-resistant American chestnut (AC), and hope to win government approval for its unregulated release into the environment. If they are successful, the GE AC will be the first GE forest tree species planted specifically to spread freely through forests. Once the GE AC is released, there will be little potential to track or reverse its spread.

"The GE AC is promoted as a test case to sway public opinion toward supporting the use of biotechnology for forest conservation, and to pave the way for the introduction of other GE trees. However, most other GE trees in development would be grown in industrial monoculture plantations, for the commercial production of timber, pulp and biofuels. A close look at who is promoting the GE AC reveals direct and indirect financial and other links between the nonprofit The American Chestnut Foundation, the researchers developing the GE AC, tree biotechnology company ArborGen, biotechnology company Monsanto (now Bayer), Duke Energy, government agencies, and other entities including the Forest Health Initiative and the Institute of Forest Biosciences that are deeply invested in advancing the use of biotechnology for forest restoration as a public relations tool."

Science Magazine: "To save iconic American chestnut, researchers plan introduction of genetically engineered tree into the wild" — "Two deer-fenced plots here contain some of the world's most highly regulated trees. Each summer researchers double-bag every flower the trees produce. One bag, made of breathable plastic, keeps them from spreading pollen. The second, an aluminum mesh screen added a few weeks later, prevents squirrels from stealing the spiky green fruits that emerge from pollinated flowers. The researchers report their every move to regulators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 'We tell them when we plant and where we plant and how many we plant,' says Andrew Newhouse, a biologist at the nearby State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF).

"These American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) are under such tight security because they are genetically modified (GM) organisms, engineered to resist a deadly blight that has all but erased the once widespread species from North American forests. Now, Newhouse and his colleagues hope to use the GM chestnuts to restore the tree to its former home. In the coming weeks, they plan to formally ask U.S. regulators for approval to breed their trees with nonengineered relatives and plant them in forests.

"If the regulators approve the request, it would be 'precedent setting'—the first use of a GM tree to try to restore a native species in North America, says Doria Gordon, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, D.C. But deciding whether to unleash a GM tree into the wild could take years."

Vermont Public Radio: "Is Genetic Engineering The Way To Restore The American Chestnut Tree?" — "The once-ubiquitous American chestnut tree is now functionally extinct, nearly erased from the landscape by a blight that killed roughly 3 billion trees over 50 years. Now a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the tree is seeking federal approval to release a genetically engineered blight-resistant chestnut into the wild. But is a genetically engineered tree the right way to restore a virtually extinct species?

"The blight, an Asian fungus that girdles chestnut trees and eventually kills them, came to North America in around the 1900s. Years of federal and local forestry efforts failed to revive the species. The nonprofit American Chestnut Foundation was formed in the 1980s to continue that work and restore the trees to the wild.

"The ACF has bred hybrid trees resistant to the blight, but it's also pursuing a genetically-modified tree that combines genes from wheat and cauliflower into a tree resistant to the fungus. Much of that research is being done at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse."

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on April 29, 2019.



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