Can biotechnology save the American chestnut tree? The early evidence is encouraging–but success will require scientific ingenuity as well as the public’s full acceptance of genetic modification.
For Italian families like mine, chestnuts are an important part of our heritage. We simply have to eat them on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We used to roast chestnuts in the fireplace. Nowadays, we stick them in ovens. They taste just as good and they always smell wonderful.
Can’t you almost hear Nat King Cole singing about them now?
A century ago, billions of American chestnuts filled the forests of the eastern United States. According to one estimate, one out of every four trees in the Appalachians was an American chestnut.
Then blight struck. A little more than a century ago, an Asian fungus made its way to our shores and devastated the American chestnut. This native species could not resist an exotic alien predator. By the middle of the 20th century, chestnuts almost had vanished.
Today, the American Chestnut Foundation says that its namesake is “effectively extinct,” meaning that although millions of sprouts continue to come up, virtually none reach maturity.
A few years ago, I was hunting for mushrooms in a wild area near my home and came across three young chestnuts. I hardly believed my eyes because they appeared to be several years old. They were just starting to produce nuts. A year later, however, they were dead, almost certainly because of blight.
Thankfully, a Chinese variety of chestnut possesses a genetic resistance to blight–and researchers have crossbred it with American chestnuts to create hybrids that enjoy better chances of survival. But this is a slow and inexact approach. About 15 years ago, a friend gave me a couple of chestnut trees that were mostly American but also partially Chinese. One still stands and produces nuts. The other died.
Today scientists are trying to harness the power of biotechnology and genetic modification to produce robust and resilient chestnut trees. One challenge is that although they know Chinese chestnuts have a natural resistance to blight, they’re still trying to locate the precise genes responsible for this beneficial trait. When that happens, they should be able to transfer these genes into American chestnuts.
Other options may present themselves as well. At the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse, a team has experimented with a wheat gene that helps plants fight fungus. Research is ongoing, but in time it could provide a solution to the plight of the American chestnut tree.
We’ve already seen how this type of innovation can revolutionize agriculture. Around the world, farmers have taken advantage of biotechnology to grow better crops. Applying this same knowledge to these beautiful trees will deliver a big environmental benefit by boosting biodiversity and combating climate change. Chestnuts grow quickly, which means a gene-enhanced population could recover in the wild and assist with carbon sequestration at the same time. Their nuts are also a good source of food for animals.
There’s an economic opportunity, too. Chestnut trees grow tall and straight, making them desirable as timber. A lot of old telephone poles were made from chestnut trees.
For farmers, chestnuts are a good cash crop. I’m thinking about planting an orchard of peach trees–and if I do, I’d like to put in a few hybrid chestnut trees as well. Until biotechnology perfects disease resistance, however, I’ll be taking a chance.
If I proceed, I’ll have to keep a close watch on the squirrels. They’re helpful to chestnut growers because they’ll signal when the nuts are ready for picking. But it’s not because they want to share. If you see squirrels eating the nuts, you have to act immediately or they’ll clean off a tree in a couple of days.
And if you listen closely enough, you may hear them humming about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org)