Genetically engineered American Chestnut Trees

“Chesnutting’’ (wood engraving) , by    Winslow Homer    (1836-1910).

“Chesnutting’’ (wood engraving) , by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

A March 31 story in GoLocal headlined “Battle Over Chestnuts: Genetic Engineering Prompts American Chestnut Foundation Resignations’’ discussed a debate in that organization over its support of planting American Chestnut Trees that have been genetically engineered by inserting a wheat gene into the chestnuts. In the 20th Century, a blight from China killed most of these once very common trees; they were virtually extinct by 1950, though I remember a still-beautiful one in my home town in the 50s. (Don’t confuse these trees with the also beautiful Horse Chestnut Tree, by the way.)

To help save the American Chestnut, arborists started using a technique (not the one above) called backcross breeding, in which one or a few genes controlling a specific trait of a species are transferred from one genetic line into a second. This has helped lead to a renaissance of the trees in some places.

Foes of the controversial genetic-engineering plan note that there are no long-term studies of the impacts of this sort of thing on forests, wildlife pollinators or humans. So why not avoid the wheat-gene tool, at least for a while? Of course, some jurisdictions will allow it, and the effects will spread in the wild. But pushing back seems honorable given the uncertainty around genetic modification in the wild.

Now if we could bring back the American Elm to its full glory!

American chestnut field trial sapling from the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation    — Photo by Jaknouse

American chestnut field trial sapling from the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation

— Photo by Jaknouse