or the first time, techniques used to genetically engineer sturdier farm crops are being tapped to bring back a devastated native species — one that once numbered in the billions and covered much of the East Coast. Entire forests were laid to waste by an Asian fungus introduced around 1900, and healthy chestnuts now exist only in a smattering of places in the American West, where the blight didn’t reach.
Now, chestnut trees whose lives began as smudges on a Petri dish are growing in upstate New York, their genes infused with a wheat DNA that appears to kill the fungus that attacks the tree’s trunk and limbs. Unlike chestnuts in nature, these trees haven’t succumbed so far to the blight — even when scientists directly infect them with it.
The experiments are the culmination of decades of research by scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. At the same time, a separate effort was under way to splice the American chestnut with a Chinese version, producing a potentially blight-resistant tree dubbed the “Restoration chestnut.” Both efforts have given hope to supporters who want the chestnut to reclaim part of its share of the forest.
Thom Almendinger, right, director of stewardship at New Jersey’s Duke Farms, inspects a chestnut seedling along with Steven Handel, left, a Rutgers University professor.
“I didn’t think they would ever do it,” said Kim Steiner, a professor of forest biology at Pennsylvania State University. Now,he said, “I’m sure it’s going to happen.”
It remains to be seen whether scientists and foresters can replenish the American chestnut to its once glorious,widespread population, as the trees will take decades to mature.