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We nearly killed off these trees. But biotech can bring them back.

Spiny burs enclose chestnuts in Syracuse, New York. Photo by Andrew Newhouse

At the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, a team of researchers are using the tools of biotechnology to produce fully American chestnut trees that successfully tolerate blight infections, protecting the tree without even harming the blight fungus itself. What they’ve done is copy a single gene from wheat — though the same gene is found in many other plants like corn and bananas, and there are no similarities to gluten or other allergens — and transferred it into American chestnuts. This enzyme breaks down a toxin called oxalic acid, which is produced by the fungus and kills American chestnut tissues.

By breeding transgenic trees with surviving wild American chestnuts, researchers can incorporate genetic diversity and regional adaptations to future generations of American chestnuts, while also protecting them from chestnut blight. Breeding with regionally adapted chestnuts, moreover, or even with hybrid or backcross chestnuts, means that a restoration program could potentially address unrelated challenges, such as climate change and other pests and pathogens.

The entire research project was initiated by TACF, and both ESF and TACF have maintained a transparent research program with continual public input from chestnut enthusiasts and others. The trees produced for restoration will not be patented or sold for profit; instead, we hope people will grow them, enjoy them, share them and breed them to participate in restoration efforts. Read the full article published by The Washington Post.