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Could GMOs Save Endangered Plants and Animals?

August 25, 2015
According to Biologist William Powell, the answer is yes. Dr. Powell says that the best way to revive the American chestnut tree, one of the most common trees in the country until a fungal blight effectively erased it from the landscape, could be genetic engineering.
“I think if we can’t get this tree deregulated and out in a restoration program, you’re not going to get any genetically engineered tree out,” says Powell, co-director with forest geneticist Charles Maynard of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Program at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “You can’t argue a better tree.”

The Food and Environment Reporting Network recently took an except from Ensia's piece on Powell and his efforts to develop a blight-resistant chestnut tree through genetic engineering:

"The American chestnut was king of the eastern forest, a keystone species for humans and nature alike....

"Then, probably in 1876, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica escaped from a shipment of chestnut seeds from Japan. The fungus spread to American chestnuts, which — unlike their Asian counterparts that had co-evolved with the fungus — had no resistance. Within 50 years, the blight killed more than 3 billion American chestnuts...

"Beginning in the 1920s, government researchers tried crossing survivors with Asian chestnuts to produce disease-resistant trees that in all other ways resembled American chestnuts. Their efforts failed to yield a tree that both resisted disease and thrived in American forests...

"But in the 1990s, biologist William Powell tried a different approach. Powell used a bacterium to insert the genes for disease resistance into the American chestnut genome. In other words, Powell created a genetically modified organism that resembled an American chestnut in every way except that it resisted the chestnut blight as well as any Asian tree."

Unfortunately, he faces a daunting path for regulatory approval. The "gnarly intersection of genetic engineering, nature and conservation" is becoming a topic of discussion, writes Ensia reporter Greg Breining. "Think about it: Producing a white pine immune to blister rust or North American ash trees impervious to emerald ash borer. Engineering corals to thrive in more acidic waters."

Besides the thicket of government regulation, the rules for green-forest certification are cast against GMO trees, says Breining. GE also could be used to combat invasive species or to control mosquitos that spread disease. The technology could be used as well to introduce genetic diversity into rare species with material gleaned from museum specimens, suggests the Long Now Foundation's Revive and Restore Program.
"For now, GMO approaches to boosting conservation remain in the laboratory, says Ensia. 

"But someday soon, conservationists still fighting a rear-guard strategy against species loss will find it necessary to decide what to do about applying this technology — which juxtaposes perhaps their greatest hopes with perhaps their greatest fears — to solve some of their most challenging problems. It will be an interesting call."

BIO encourages you to read Breining's piece "In the Race to Save Species, GMOs are coming to Nature" in its entirety,