Forest of the future: Maine conservationists plant American genetically modified chestnut trees in hopes of reviving near-dead species

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University of New England Professor Thomas Klak stands in a field of 550 fungal blight-tolerant American chestnut seedlings he helped develop in Cape Elizabeth. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN
University of New England Professor Thomas Klak stands in a field of 550 fungal blight-tolerant American chestnut seedlings he helped develop in Cape Elizabeth. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Though some are still scattered across the country, the [American] chestnut has been functionally extinct for 70 years. 

But science has other ideas. 

“This is a wild chestnut tree with 35,000 American chestnut genes — and one extra gene,” [gene conservationist Thomas] Klak told his crew of volunteers [recently] as he held a sapling.

That extra gene is a simple wheat gene also found in strawberries and barley, and which contains blight. Klak, who teaches environmental studies at the University of New England, hopes the gene will inoculate the young chestnut to help it withstand blight’s effects in the wild.

Besides that, transgenic chestnuts act the same as the originals did 150 years ago, Klak has found — in other words, substantially more useful than most trees. In experiments, tadpoles feeding on transgenic chestnut leaves grow 50 percent faster than with maple leaves, suggesting the nutritious qualities of the original American chestnuts are intact. 

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The transgenic trees at the Cape Elizabeth orchard were planted alongside traditional chestnuts, blight-tolerant Chinese chestnuts and hybrids. In three years, Klak will introduce the trees with the chestnut blight and see who survives.

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