What do you want to know about restoring the American Chestnut?

American Chestnuts, as they used to be seen

I have some exciting news to share. Earlier this year during my presentation at the GMO Forum in Washington D.C., I mentioned a project that raised some eyebrows. It was at the end of a mini laundry list of genetically engineered traits that I thought were interesting and important for people to know about. But this one was different. It wasn’t about increasing commodity crop yield, enhancing the nutritional properties of tomatoes or cassava, or guarding corn against drought. These are all very important, practical ideas for improving our crops. This one, however, was different not only because it was not the kind of plant you would normally think of when you imagine a “crop,” nor would you find it making up a farmer’s field. No, this genetically engineered plant, if approved, would be grown in a forest – in fact, ideally it would become the forest. I am of course talking about the restoration of the American Chestnut.

This iconic tree, that was both a source of hardy wood, food for wildlife and people alike, and a keystone species in the ecology of the Eastern States of our union, was nearly wiped out by a devastating disease. The Chestnut Blight, brought over from Asia around the year 1900, laid waste to this tree in its once vast realm, leaving behind a few remnant and secluded survivors, and withered stumps that struggle to put out shoots that later die back again. The spread of the disease and the virtual elimination of chestnuts from the American forests took only four decades.

Many years ago, a breeding project was started to try to bring resistance to this disease into the American Chestnut from its Chinese cousin, but if you are familiar with tree breeding, that process takes a long time. Today there are chestnut trees that are 15/16 American, and 1/16 Chinese, which have resistance to this blight and are being tested in several field trials. This breeding is taking place at the American Chestnut Foundation research farm in Meadowview, Virginia.

At the same time, genetic engineering is also being used to create resistant trees. At the State University of New York City College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), a gene borrowed from wheat has been found which enables the trees to disarm the way the disease itself attacks the trees. They are working other genes as well.

Both of these projects, working toward the same goal, have their strengths and weaknesses. How does the resistance compare? How about the potential environmental impacts, and the genetic identity of the trees that result? Wouldn’t it be great to get some more information about these, and see the trees themselves? You’re in luck. I’ve just managed to arrange interviews with experts from both projects, and I’m on my way to interview them this week and next week while on a trip down to North Carolina. But we could use a little help to make this happen.

Transgenic American Chestnut trees in a greenhouse

Thanks to the generous contributions of our readers earlier this year, we’ve got the funds to take care of the extra fuel and sleeping arrangements for my diversion to Syracuse, NY, however, this will cut into the other projects that we want to spend that money on. So we’re asking for a little help to make this interview excursion possible. You’ll get virtual front row seats to seeing the labs, forests, and the people working on these projects, and you will have the opportunity to have some of your own questions answered. I have also just received permission to film Dr. William Powell’s public talk on Thursday, so everyone can watch it.

What will it take to get me there and back again?

  • fuel: $160
  • 2 nights camping in Syracuse’s toasty 44-degree nightly weather (brr!): $61
    (at least state parks aren’t shut down, but do they have to penalize out-of-towners?)
  • mini-DV tapes: $30 ( Unfortunately, only a tape-based camera was available this time)
  • Total: $251

So if you have a spare pile of that filthy Monsanto lucre lying around and you don’t know what to do with it, please consider donating a small amount toward this project. Thanks to one donation we have received, we are already about 1/5th of the way there! If we get out tax exemption approved by the IRS, it will be tax-deductible. I will update the total below as we receive donations. Every little tiny bit helps, do it for the chestnuts!

Current Total: $320.29! Thank you everyone who supported us!

In the meantime, you have tonight and all day on Wednesday to ask some questions that I can add to my first interview with the transgenic team at SUNY-ESF, and a few more days more for questions to ask of the traditional breeding team at ACF. Here are the two interviews that have been arranged, and others may be added:

SUNY-ESF: Professor Charles Maynard

American Chestnut Foundation: Bryan Burhans, President and CEO

So, what do you want to know about restoring the American Chestnut? Let us know in the comments! Our readers always ask the best questions.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.