Biotechnology is bringing new hope to a long-running effort to revive the American chestnut tree, an iconic species that once dominated the eastern woodlands but was nearly wiped out by blight. Researchers in New York are growing transgenic chestnut specimens producing an enzyme that helps the tree resist fungal infections. The trees have survived experimental infections with chestnut blight, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“I didn’t think they would ever do it,” Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology at Penn State, told the Journal. Now, he said, “I’m sure it’s going to happen.”
The resistant trees were developed at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, which is also involved in a project using conventional breeding to cross the American tree with a blight-resistant Chinese variety.
The transgenic project uses a gene found in wheat and other grass species that can detoxify oxalate, a chemical produced by the blight, by breaking it down into carbon dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. The same gene is being tested for its pathogen resistance in crops.
The transgenic project began in 1990, alongside the “backcross” program dating from the 1980’s. The blight erupted in 1904 and killed billions of chestnut trees by 1950. While chestnut trees can still be found in the eastern woods and mountains, most succumb to the blight.
If the chestnut can be saved, scientists say, there could be hope for other endangered trees, including the elm, nearly wiped out by Dutch elm disease, and the eastern hemlock, which is besieged by a sap-sucking insect.