Researchers located a gene that can make the American chestnut tree resistant to the fungus that killed billions of them.
If you’re like many people, you have only heard stories about the giant chestnut trees that covered the East Coast of the United States. Once they towered over forests from Georgia to Maine, numbering in the billions. However, then came the importation of Asian chestnuts and with them, the Cryphonectria parasitica fungus.
William Powell, one of the directors of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project said, “The fungus took out a quarter of all our eastern forests”
If this project is a success we could again see the chestnut tree fill in its place in forests around the east coast with the food it provides for wildlife, not to mention another type of tree in the world to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
About 26 years ago, Powell began working with project co-director Charles Maynard in an effort to find a gene that would be resistant to chestnut blight. After combing through more than 30, they found one that showed promise from a cultivated wheat species which produces an enzyme known as oxalate oxidase.
On an interesting note, Powell states that the gene has nothing to do with wheat gluten and that the chestnuts will remain gluten-free. Scientifically speaking, the enzyme stops the fungus from forming the deadly cankers on the chestnut stems by detoxifying the oxalate that the fungus uses to create them.
You might think that the best case scenario would be that the fungus is eradicated, but hold on. Powell says that scientists don’t want the pathogen to overcome the resistance therefore having the fungus survive is an important factor for both species.
“The best thing about this gene is that it does not harm the fungus at all,” Powell said “The fungus can still survive, but oxalate oxidase takes the weapon away from the fungus. Since the fungus can still grow on the bark of the tree, we’re changing the lifestyle of the fungus”
In a world where GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) has become a dirty word, could this be the one that makes everyone happy? Since this project has been some 26 years in the making, have researchers gone far enough to ensure the safety of the environment?
At some point the difference between natural and modified selection will have to be made, but when an unnatural fungus was introduced that killed off millions and millions of native chestnut tree that animals like deer use for nutrition, something has to be done.
The project is still waiting for federal approval to grow and plant some 10,000 trees which would be available to the general public to purchase at cost. “It’s going to take some time to get them established,” said Powell, adding “This is a tree that can live a hundred years, not a weed that spreads quickly.”