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Can GMOs Save the Wild American Chestnut Tree?

November 30, 2016
As we conclude the Thanksgiving holiday and head into the season of Christmas, it's important to remind folks of the American chestnut tree blight.

In the early 1900s, the eastern United States chestnut tree population was hit with a pathogenic fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica. This fungus is the main cause of chestnut blight, a disease that wiped out 3 to 4 billion trees in just a couple of decades and nearly devastated the entire chestnut tree population. The chestnut blight was first spotted in 1904 and is believed to have arrived here in Asian chestnut trees. Unfortunately, American chestnuts have no resistance to the fungus, making it all too susceptible to the disease and now it's an endemic throughout the Eastern U.S.

Scientists in Syracuse are working on creating the first genetically modified wild forest tree. And with that, rest hopes that the American chestnut tree could make a comeback with nudge from the lab. North Country Public Radio has the report here:

...SUNY ESF Researcher Allison Oakes says when researchers found an enzyme that reduces the virulence of the fungus on chestnut trees by blocking it's acidity, it opened the door to creating a tree that won't die from it.

So now, in a brightly lit lab in Syracuse, tiny green chestnut seedlings are tenderly cared for by Oakes.
"This is going to be the first genetically modified organism that's made for restoration of a natural ecosystem, as opposed to crop plants, or food production," she said.

So Oakes drifts from one plant to another, pairing the fungal-resistant gene, with different chestnut seedlings. She says the long term goal is reestablishing them where they once grew with abandon. These seedlings will be planted next spring. Researchers start applying for approval from three federal agencies next year, and if they get the okay, trees could be growing in the wild in three to five years.
"We've got to clear all the hurdles, we have to make all the studies. We've got to check for all the environmental safety issues. Because we can't put anything out there that would have a harmful effect, because that's absolutely the opposite of what we want to do," said Oakes.

She says research like this is happening with other non-crop plants and organisms, notably ash trees and coral. And she believes it's necessary in a warming world, where it might take 100,000 years for a species like the American chestnut to reestablish itself on its own.
"It's almost going to be required, because species are going to have to change faster than they can naturally in order to keep up with climate change."