More than 100 years ago, the American chestnut was an icon of East Coast forests.
With massive trunks reaching nearly 5 feet in diameter and a towering height of 100 feet, American chestnuts defined the landscape from Maine to Mississippi.
A blight in the early 1900s, however, erased the giants from the woods. A toxin released by the blight killed the trees from the trunk up, reducing them to rotting stumps with new shoots that would grow, but eventually succumb to the blight as well.
Through the years, scientists and foresters worked to bring the chestnut back, and generations of crossbreeding with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts offered hope.
Still, this strategy has yet to bring the chestnut back to its historical range.
But it’s still possible to save the American chestnut, and that may be achieved with the same technology that helps crops such as corn, soybeans and alfalfa thrive.
Although genetically modified crops, or GMOs, have been the subject of much scorn for decades, the process of genetic engineering has proven to be beneficial.
In my opinion, the outcry over GMOs has been an overreaction to a process that, on the surface, sounds concerning (genetically modified) but in reality is insignificant to the final product that reaches the store.
While GMOs have increased the yield and quality of many agricultural crops, the science is on the verge of bringing back the American chestnut.
Research conducted by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry has revealed encouraging results. The work dates back to 1990 when SUNY geneticists began creating blight-resistant American chestnuts genetically engineered with a single wheat gene.
The wheat gene produces an enzyme that breaks down the pathogen released by chestnut blight — the pathogen that ultimately killed the American chestnut.
Unlike crossbreeding, the GMO chestnut is essentially 100% American chestnut because none of the genome has been removed or replaced.
The only difference is a single wheat gene. The GMO variety has all of the same characteristics, including nuts, that are indistinguishable from the native American chestnut.
Currently, the GMO American chestnut is in the middle of a lengthy regulatory process — similar to what happens for transgenic trees introduced for fruit orchards.
If the new chestnut makes it through the regulatory process, it could be the key to restoration.
None of us remember a Pennsylvania forest dominated by American chestnut trees. They’ve been gone for 100 years, but thanks to GMO technology, the forest of our generation may one day look more like the native forest of the past.