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The Genetic Revival of the Mighty American Chestnut

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The USDA is now taking public comment on the transgenic chestnut's release

  • American Chestnuts were once one of the most abundant trees in the Appalachian mountains

  • They are now on the brink of extinction

  • There are hopes a new genetically engineered variety will restore this keystone species

American Chestnut Tree
Credit: Milton Muldrow. New Dawn for the American Chestnut

Almost no living human remembers the time of American chestnut abundance, as their population had dwindled significantly due to the invasive chestnut blight by 1915. The American chestnut was a biological force, standing up to 100 feet tall and numbering in the billions. They were among the most numerous and sizeable trees in their forest. At one point, 1 in 4 trees in these great Eastern forests was a chestnut. They provided food for a tremendous array of wildlife, including deer, bears, and squirrels. Their nuts were also a likely food source for now-extinct species such as the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon. Scientists also seek to revive these extinct species by using synthetic biology tools in conjunction with sequenced DNA from museum specimens.

Chestnuts were also a cultural phenomenon. Many residents of the Appalachian mountains would consume them to patch together meals, to consume as a festive desert, or to even make more money for the family by selling to those living in large Eastern cities such as New York. The wood was naturally rot-resistant and commonly used as a building material, for furniture, telephone poles, and many other uses.

Chestnuts were largely taken out by the invasive chestnut blight, an invasive fungus from Asia. The blight was likely introduced when the Japanese chestnut brought to the United States. Both the Japanese chestnut and the Chinese chestnut have a natural resistance to the blight, although the American chestnut did not co-evolve with the blight, and thus has little in the way of natural defenses against it. A few pockets of American chestnuts remain here and there, although they no longer play meaningful functional roles within ecosystems, and are threatened with extinction.

Appalachian Mountains
Credit: Milton Muldrow. Appalachian Mountains.

However, on November 10, 2022, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service called for public comment on the release of a blight-tolerant chestnut developed using genetic engineering. This tree was developed by Dr. William Powell, Director of the American Chestnut Foundation, using a gene from wheat that confers resistance to the blight. This project has been over a decade in the making. Perhaps the most important implication for pending approval of a genetically-modified tree is what this may mean to the release of such species in general. There are dozens of projects underway, where scientists are using the tools of genetic engineering to aid the conservation of species. An approval here will change our ecological and economic future. It is also likely to lead a new industry, a revival industry, where genetic engineering and synthetic biology are used as tools to repair damage to ecological services.

This system, including the chestnuts, the extinct Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon, more than any other at the moment, represents the idea of phantom ecology (Muldrow, 2022). Phantom ecology is a combination of restoration ecology and synthetic biology that will involve the engineering of single and even multicellular synthetic or semi-synthetic organisms with the goal of restoring ecosystem function. Phantom ecology will involve the establishment of new baselines and the engineering of new environments, creatures, and housings. This system threatens to be the first to have multiple interacting species revived within similar timeframes, threatening to resuscitate Millenial relationships that were thought to be gone forever.

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