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.