Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Revival of valuable chestnut trees moves on 2 tracks

"The salvation of the American chestnut tree may rest in the hands of two groups with two very different approaches" to overcoming the chestnut blight fungus that wiped out almost all the huge, valuable streets in North America in the middle of the 20th Century, Greenwire reports, picking up a story by Michael Wines in The New York Times.

In the most widely reported approach, the American Chestnut Foundation is planting thousands of hybrid trees (1/16 Chinese chestnut) on reclaimed mine sites in Pennsylvania "to see whether the trees can survive in the wild, where predators lurk and other trees compete for nutrients and light." Researchers also fear that the hybrid trees may lose their resistance to the blight as they mature.

The other approach is being conducted by scientists at the State University of New York-Syracuse, who have created a tree genetically "modified with a gene from wheat that enables it to produce a blight-fighting enzyme," Greenwire reports. (Times photo by Heather Ainsworth: Charles A. Maynard of SUNY-Syracuse's College of Environmental Science and Forestry walks among genetically modified seedlings)

The hybrid trees resist the oxalic acid produced by the fungus by "building a wall around the fungus before it can secrete enough acid to encircle the tree," while the genetically modified trees have a wheat gene that "manufactures an enzyme that renders oxalic acid harmless, stopping the fungus before it can kill," Wines writes.

Both groups are encouraged by the progress of the trees. Where trees have been planted, 14,000 potentially blight-resistant chestnut seedlings are sprouting with thousands of other hardwoods, Wines reports. William A. Powell, professor and forest biotechnologist at SUNY-Syrcause, told Wines that once the genetically modified trees are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be planted in a controlled field, it will take about two years for them to be prime and regulated, and petitions could be filed to lift federal restrictions on where they could be planted. They hope to begin planting the trees in a controlled field by the fall. (Read more)

Perhaps coincidentally, Natasha Haverty of North Country Public Radio has a nice story on a couple in Russell, N.Y., who planted two chestnut seedlings 28 years ago and have watched them reach a height of 60 feet. Todd and Nancy Alessi aren't part of the organized effort to overcome the blight, "but from their trees, Todd's been able to sprout hundreds of seedlings and he's giving them away to friends and neighbors, and if those fare as well, more people may get to witness the spectacle of a fully-grown thriving chestnut in their lifetime, a look at the world as it used to be," Haverty reports.

No comments: