What do you want to know about restoring the American Chestnut?

American Chestnuts, as they used to be seen

I have some exciting news to share. Earlier this year during my presentation at the GMO Forum in Washington D.C., I mentioned a project that raised some eyebrows. It was at the end of a mini laundry list of genetically engineered traits that I thought were interesting and important for people to know about. But this one was different. It wasn’t about increasing commodity crop yield, enhancing the nutritional properties of tomatoes or cassava, or guarding corn against drought. These are all very important, practical ideas for improving our crops. This one, however, was different not only because it was not the kind of plant you would normally think of when you imagine a “crop,” nor would you find it making up a farmer’s field. No, this genetically engineered plant, if approved, would be grown in a forest – in fact, ideally it would become the forest. I am of course talking about the restoration of the American Chestnut.
This iconic tree, that was both a source of hardy wood, food for wildlife and people alike, and a keystone species in the ecology of the Eastern States of our union, was nearly wiped out by a devastating disease. The Chestnut Blight, brought over from Asia around the year 1900, laid waste to this tree in its once vast realm, leaving behind a few remnant and secluded survivors, and withered stumps that struggle to put out shoots that later die back again. The spread of the disease and the virtual elimination of chestnuts from the American forests took only four decades.
Many years ago, a breeding project was started to try to bring resistance to this disease into the American Chestnut from its Chinese cousin, but if you are familiar with tree breeding, that process takes a long time. Today there are chestnut trees that are 15/16 American, and 1/16 Chinese, which have resistance to this blight and are being tested in several field trials. This breeding is taking place at the American Chestnut Foundation research farm in Meadowview, Virginia.
At the same time, genetic engineering is also being used to create resistant trees. At the State University of New York City College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), a gene borrowed from wheat has been found which enables the trees to disarm the way the disease itself attacks the trees. They are working other genes as well.
Both of these projects, working toward the same goal, have their strengths and weaknesses. How does the resistance compare? How about the potential environmental impacts, and the genetic identity of the trees that result? Wouldn’t it be great to get some more information about these, and see the trees themselves? You’re in luck. I’ve just managed to arrange interviews with experts from both projects, and I’m on my way to interview them this week and next week while on a trip down to North Carolina. But we could use a little help to make this happen.
Transgenic American Chestnut trees in a greenhouse

Thanks to the generous contributions of our readers earlier this year, we’ve got the funds to take care of the extra fuel and sleeping arrangements for my diversion to Syracuse, NY, however, this will cut into the other projects that we want to spend that money on. So we’re asking for a little help to make this interview excursion possible. You’ll get virtual front row seats to seeing the labs, forests, and the people working on these projects, and you will have the opportunity to have some of your own questions answered. I have also just received permission to film Dr. William Powell’s public talk on Thursday, so everyone can watch it.
What will it take to get me there and back again?

  • fuel: $160
  • 2 nights camping in Syracuse’s toasty 44-degree nightly weather (brr!): $61
    (at least state parks aren’t shut down, but do they have to penalize out-of-towners?)
  • mini-DV tapes: $30 ( Unfortunately, only a tape-based camera was available this time)
  • Total: $251

So if you have a spare pile of that filthy Monsanto lucre lying around and you don’t know what to do with it, please consider donating a small amount toward this project. Thanks to one donation we have received, we are already about 1/5th of the way there! If we get out tax exemption approved by the IRS, it will be tax-deductible. I will update the total below as we receive donations. Every little tiny bit helps, do it for the chestnuts!

Current Total: $320.29! Thank you everyone who supported us!

In the meantime, you have tonight and all day on Wednesday to ask some questions that I can add to my first interview with the transgenic team at SUNY-ESF, and a few more days more for questions to ask of the traditional breeding team at ACF. Here are the two interviews that have been arranged, and others may be added:
SUNY-ESF: Professor Charles Maynard
American Chestnut Foundation: Bryan Burhans, President and CEO
So, what do you want to know about restoring the American Chestnut? Let us know in the comments! Our readers always ask the best questions.


  1. Oooh oooh oooh! I have questions! (and I gave money, so I feel entitled)
    I’ve been thinking about a couple of things related to reintroduction that I’d like to know more about.
    1. The soil microorganisms. I’m wondering if the gene that can affect the blight could impact the soil microbes differently in the new trees. I suspect that that will happen is that adaptable organisms will colonize and it will all be fine, but I am curious if this has been explored.
    2. The other organisms that used to eat chestnuts. Did any of them also go away, or did they just shift food sources? Or nesting birds. I guess it’s a question of whether they will come back to eating/living with the re-introduced trees or do some of them need to be re-introduced too.
    3. Besides just worrying about the effectiveness of the resistance, what worries these teams the most about the outcomes? Personally, I’d worry about Greenpeace + chainsaws. But I’d be interested to hear what they think.
    That said, I love both of these projects and I hope they both succeed.

  2. Excellent idea! I’ve been following these efforts for years, and am hghly interested in planting a transgenic chestnut tree in my yard at the earliest opportunity. Would love to know when this might happen. Thanks!

  3. Sending a link to this post, Karl, to Sara Fitzsimmons of Penn State (main campus), and Dr. Beth Brantley of PSU, Mont Alto, who are involved in the PSU efforts to breed blight resistant Chestnuts.

  4. 1. I’m curious about the biodiversity of the resulting forest (which Karl hints at in this post). If the trees are all clones that could potentially set up the forest for another disease. But it could be really difficult to produce GE trees with the appropriate amount of genetic diversity for a forest.
    2. How proven is the resistance? Will there be >1 resistance genes to help prevent the fungus from evolving resistance to the resistance?

  5. Right in your backyard Jonathan Palmer – now a post doc researcher in the Madison area – and Professor Thomas Volk (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) are experts in Mycorrhizal Fungal Associations related to chestnut (related to Mary’s question). Jonathan can be reached via his LinkedIn account.
    Sounds like a fun road trip … Powell and Maynard have been doing interesting work.

  6. MaryM,
    From Dr Maynard’s CV:
    Newhouse, A.E., J.E. Spitzer, C.A. Maynard, and W.A. Powell. 2013. Leaf Inoculation Assay as a Rapid Predictor of Chestnut Blight Susceptibility. Plant Disease (accepted)
    D’Amico, T. Horton, C. Maynard, and W. Powell. 2011. Assessing ectomycorrhizal associations and transgene expression in transgenic Castanea dentata. (Extended abstract for the IUFRO meeting in 2011) BioMed Central (BMC) Proceedings 2011, 5(Suppl 7):O54.

  7. I was going to ask the question that Anastasia had. Re-stocking a forest with a single clone is just asking for trouble, isn’t it?

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