The Return of a King – The American Chestnut

Two Chestnut burrs
Two Chestnut burrs. Credit: KJHvM

When European settlers came to America, they found vast forests in the Appalachian mountains, dominated by the American chestnut. The chestnut quickly worked its way into the lives and culture of our country, and was used for lumber, food, forage, and fuel. But today, the chestnut is nearly gone – almost completely wiped out by a blight that was accidentally imported on a Chinese chestnut tree. The impacts of this loss have been felt across the Appalachians, and even to parts of the Midwest. But today there is a concerted effort to bring it back – and to use modern genetics to do it. Two fascinating projects have been underway for years, employing breeding and genetic engineering.

Last fall, thanks to the help of some of our readers, I was able to attend a presentation by Dr. William Powell at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY. I also got a tour of his group’s labs, greenhouse, and field plots, followed by an interview with Dr. Charles Maynard. Then, I swung down to Asheville, NC, and interviewed Bryan Burhans, the then-president of the American Chestnut Foundation. On my way back to Madison, I stopped at the ACF’s breeding station in Meadowview, Virginia, for a tour and an interview with Dr. Fred Hebard who runs the breeding project for ACF. Each interview had some interesting discussions, which I hope you will find interesting.

A combination of using tape-based storage, followed by data loss, graduation and acclimation to my new job had put off the release of these videos. But recent events have taught me the importance of getting this information out there to the world. The footage has now been re-extracted from the tapes and itching to be seen. Expect a flurry of chestnut videos in the coming weeks as I crank them out!

The first video I have for you is a presentation given by Bill Powell, and it is an updated and extended version of his TEDx talk, with new data that now appears in a peer-reviewed publication published last month. If you haven’t heard the significance of this finding yet, then I won’t spoil it for you (spoiler). Just watch the presentation!

They are currently raising money to grow enough trees to produce 10,000 chestnuts for the eventual release of their blight-resistant trees, pending review by federal regulators. For just $10 you can support this project and have your name proudly displayed on their Wall of Nuts. Give some more and you can get more, including a tour for yourself to see the trees in person! If you are looking for something worthy of your support on Giving Tuesdaycheck out the Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge – there are only 3 days left to be a part of it! I’m giving to support The Return of a King.

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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.

  • Ray Kinney

    I have been following this effort for many years from the left coast, and consider it to be a very good example of the excellent responsible use of genetic engineering, where a much more dangerous approach has been taken by the development of GMO technology with pesticide resistance. Unintended consequences are always a risk, even within the American chestnut blight resistance effort, but within the pesticide resistance GMO paradigm the risks appear to be far more likely (e.g. the very rapid pesticide resistance evolved in weeds), with the subsequent necessity of continually adding much more pesticide dosage to overcome the problem for a bit, and the subsequent need to move toward ever more dangerous chemicals for unintended environmental contamination and public health risk.

  • Ray Kinney

    The so called ‘anti GMO movement’ has strong validity to question the irresponsible uses and practices hidden within the pesticide resistance paradigm, but so far they have made politically tactical conceptual errors of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ by their insistence that all GMOs are inherently irresponsible. The recent voting for GMO labeling in Oregon failed by only several hundred votes because the campaign did not distinguish and educate about the need for this distinction… next vote will most likely correct this through better education about this distinction.

  • Ray Kinney

    Thanks for helping to educate about this problem by bringing the more responsible approach of the chestnut effort out more prominently to the public. Any tool can be used irresponsibly, it is our duty for public health to apply science toward clarification of risks hidden within irresponsible trends… and promote responsible trends. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to know enough yet to assure safety of pesticide resistant crop development, precaution should be more prominent while the science progresses. To the degree we make all of the population increasingly part of the GMO lab experiments, we increase risks of making failed lab outcomes become vast population damaging outcomes. Do the science, do more science and better science.. but do it more carefully within a lab-like setting before global dispersal of half completed scientific method and profit generating worldwide dispersal that is not yet thought out enough.

  • I already got my “mom” chestnut and it’s in my fridge right now! Woot!

  • Ray Kinney

    The science community has a really poor record of standing up to say ENOUGH,when industry and the supply and demand chain are ‘on a roll’ (lead, nicotine, DDT, DES, PCBs, etc.). we are not very good at waving red or yellow flags of caution in a timely fashion. We are not very good about funding additional and timely research about products that we are producing at a good profit yet have associated substantial areas of toxicologic concern> We have far too much tendency to smuggly hold to our current less-than-critical status quo ‘profit momentum’. We tend to base our assessments of cautionary need far more on political ‘science’ and business ‘science’ than on adequate biological science and toxicologic risk inherent at a given moment.

    • I would say that this is wholly false on its face – it is the science community which identified and demonstrated the hazards of any end every one of the above things you mentioned.

  • Ray Kinney

    Scientists are so compartmentalised in their knowledge bases that it is far too easy to become myopic and unwilling to try to look at a more comprehensive assessment of the wider picture of essential assessment across all fields of science. We are not very good at ‘groking’ the whole, and ‘manning up’ enough to speak out when we see dangerous status and trends evolving.. we tend far too often to hide within our specialties and behind our own precious data. We often can’t see ‘the forest for the trees’. Scientists need far better willingness to become more societally responsible by using our understanding of science to voice need for evaluation of how science can, should, and MUST become applied with a precautionary outlook before prematurely rushing toward ‘profit taking’.

  • Ray Kinney

    The science community took a very long time to deal with all of these issues.. a woefully, pitifully long time. Long after there was very significant indication of public health harm that was very substantial. The politic got in the way to insist that there really was not enough of a problem to be concerned about. After a great harm was done, finally.. action was slowly cranked up.. reluctantly… with many heels dragging. We can do better than this!
    We can do science in a much more responsible way. Scientists need to man-up.

  • Ray Kinney

    I know a good number, and they are almost always very well intentioned, hardworking, and very knowlegable in their fields. They however are usually so busy and intent on their projects that there is little time and energy for them to apply their perspectives adequately toward looking with pointedly investigative intent at subjects that are avoided by government and industry for funding prioritization. Funding bias that tries to avoid environmental monitoring and assessment that could possibly lead to finding data that could fault less than responsible industry practices, leave a void in huge areas of public health and wildlife management practices. Scientists need to be more assertive in their confidence in their abilities to lead us beyond the politic bias and into a better, more responsible precautionary research and development future. IMHO

  • Ray Kinney

    And, by the way, the effort toward reforestation of the American chestnut is a shinning example of how this can be achieved in a more responsible fashion.

  • Ray Kinney
  • Ray Kinney

    I would feel far better about the science of GMO development, if I had a better indication of many ‘food science’
    practitioner ‘scientists’ adherence to more fully using the comprehensive intent of the complete scientific methodology. It seems that the ‘method’ is far too often shortchanged for ‘profit gain’ at the expense of good science. IMHO