Until recently, the best strategy for saving the American chestnut has involved creating hybrids with the smaller and less impressive—but blight-resistant—Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima). Research from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), however, using genetic engineering techniques to generate transgenic trees, suggests that we may at last be on the verge of bringing the American chestnut back.
The SUNY project, spearheaded by plant pathologist William Powell, has created an array of blight-resistant genetically modified chestnut trees. Powell and collaborators accomplished this by inserting a wheat gene into the American chestnut genome that codes for the enzyme oxalate oxidase, a compound that effectively zonks the invading C. parasitica fungus. The transgenic trees appear to be as resistant to chestnut blight as the impervious Chinese chestnuts, though otherwise their genetic makeup is almost entirely that of conventional American chestnut trees. (For more on Powell’s work, see Resurrecting a Forest.)
The next step, Powell and colleagues agree, is to obtain permission from the U.S. government before attempting to return the transgenic chestnuts to the environment.
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