Reviving the American chestnut: Genetic modification can save the iconic tree from extinction

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Image credit: Andrew Newhouse

We’re using the tools of biotechnology to produce fully American chestnut trees that successfully tolerate blight infections, protecting the tree without even harming the blight fungus itself. What we did was copy a single gene from wheat — though the same gene is found in many other plants like corn and bananas, and there are no similarities to gluten or other allergens — and transferred it into American chestnuts. This enzyme breaks down a toxin called oxalic acid, which is produced by the fungus and kills American chestnut tissues.

A common concern when people first hear about using biotechnology for restoration is an assumed lack of genetic diversity. But that will not be the case with chestnuts: the transgene will protect future generations of chestnut trees as it is incorporated into diverse genetic backgrounds, which are otherwise on a slow march toward extinction.

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Transgenic chestnuts have been thoroughly tested for safety to many other organisms, such as fungi, bumblebees and tadpoles, and we’ve consistently seen no increased risks compared to traditional breeding.

Biotechnology certainly isn’t the only tool we have to protect trees from environmental threats, but it can be a safe and effective option to restore healthy and resilient trees to native ecosystems.

Editor’s note: Andrew Newhouse is an environmental science and forestry PhD student at ‎the State University of New York

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Read full, original post: We nearly killed off these trees. But biotech can bring them back.

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