Video: USDA to decide fate of American chestnut restoration

American chestnut allen breed ap

University researchers are seeking approval to restore the iconic chestnut to American forests by using a genetically engineered (GE) variety that can tolerate the blight that has killed billions of wild trees.

If the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) accepts the deregulation petition, the blight-tolerant chestnut would be the first GE tree approved for environmental conservation use in the US. China has already approved a GE poplar tree, and the US previously approved virus-resistant GE papaya and plum trees.

“Researchers have been trying for years to control chestnut blight through conventional breeding, bio-controls and biotechnology,” said State University of New York (SUNY) researcher William Powell. “We’ve completed a rigorous research and testing process that confirmed GE trees offer the best defense against the blight, while having no harmful impact on forest ecosystems.”

The key now is getting those GE trees out into the forests, where they can breed with wild-type chestnuts to help them gain better resistance to the disease. When a GE father tree is planted near a wild-type mother tree and they cross, half the resulting nuts will carry the blight-tolerant trait.

“This outcrossing process will allow us to rescue much of the surviving genetic diversity and build in local adaptability for the restoration program,” Powell said. Though blight ultimately kills trees, chestnuts have the ability to sprout from their root collar, Powell said. Millions of stump sprouts are still growing in the forest, comprising a natural reservoir of genetic diversity that will strengthen restoration efforts.

“That’s our game plan, to see it [the chestnut] come back as a keystone species,” said SUNY co-researcher Charles Maynard. “We would like to see it back in the forest, slugging it out with all the other trees.”

Though the restoration effort has won tremendous public support, researchers say regulators now need to hear from all those who want chestnut trees to thrive again in the forest. Public comments may be submitted here. The American Chestnut Foundation has created a page that includes links to all the relevant documents, as well as tips on writing a comment, which are due by Oct. 19.

Over the past century, some three to five billion trees have succumbed to the ravages of chestnut blight, a pathogen inadvertently introduced from Asia. The fungus functions by colonizing a wound in the bark and producing oxalic acid, which creates a canker that eventually proves lethal by girdling the trunk.

Related article:  The sustainability case for "industrial agriculture"

To develop the GE variety, Powell and Maynard worked with a team of 100 university scientists and students at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. They identified a gene from bread wheat that detoxifies the oxalic, providing an effective defense against chestnut blight.

The wheat gene produces an oxalate oxidase enzyme that is found in all grain crops and many other familiar foods, Powell explained. Though the enzyme does not kill the fungus, it causes it to change its lifestyle. Instead of forming a destructive canker, it can survive on the bark as a harmless saprophyte.

The application comes as a new scientific paper published in Conservation Biology argues that efforts to use biotechnology to  improve forest health should be afforded the same consideration, acceptance and support as biotech projects intended to improve human health.

Opposition to biotechnology’s use in agriculture and forestry may be driven by concerns that GE plants will primarily benefit corporations or disrupt the environment, note the paper’s authors, Michael Aucott and Rex A. Parker.

Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.

“But to conflate genetic modifications intended to promote healthy ecosystems or preserve threatened species with GE projects aimed at benefiting corporate agriculture and forestry is misleading and illogical,” they write. “Further, the pervasive human disruption and damage to forest ecosystems makes it prudent to bring the best that science can offer to the protection and restoration of critical woodland denizens and broader ecosystem health. The notion that minimal human intervention in the forest environment may be the best approach ignores humanity’s responsibility to help manage and protect some of the very places that have been most damaged by human intrusion.”

“This is a project for our grandchildren,” Powell said. “It will take 100 years before we’re able to get a token of what we had at one time. But it’s a start.”

Joan Conrow has 35 years of experience as a journalist, editor, and communications consultant. She specializes in environmental issues, biotechnology, and agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @joanconrow

This article ran at Cornell Alliance for Science and has been republished here with permission. Follow the Alliance for Science on Twitter @ScienceAlly

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend