How Scientists Could Save The American Chestnut Tree. 

How Scientists Could Save The American Chestnut Tree.  Source: Unsplash
Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Scientists Could Save The American Chestnut Tree.  Source: Unsplash

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Scientists Could Save The American Chestnut Tree. 

Scientists from the American Chestnut Foundation are working to save the American Chestnut and have created a blight-resistant version that could help the population recover from the damage caused by the chestnut blight of the 20th century. 

The Ruination of the American Chestnut

While the mass extinction of many flora and fauna species due to climate change is of pressing importance today, it is not the first time that species have suffered immense consequences at the hands of humans. 

For years, different animal and plant species have gone extinct due to human actions, with one notable example being the American Chestnut. 

This large nut fruit-bearing tree was once the dominant tree species within its native ecosystem, which extended from Maine to Mississipi. However, beginning in the early 19th century, this tree was wiped out of its original habitat and is now critically endangered by the IUCN. 

The origins of this destruction are threefold; two of the main reasons are biological, and the other is directly related to human actions. 

Before 1824, an epidemic of ink disease began to spread among chestnut trees in the southeast of the US, likely originating from cork oak trees imported from Portugal, leaving the species vulnerable. 

In the early 20th century, a different, much more devastating fungal disease began to circulate among chestnuts while recovering from the ink disease outbreak. This fungal disease, now known as chestnut blight, likely originated from the bark of Chinese chestnuts imported to New York in 1904. 

This disease spread rapidly and, with many of the blight-resistant chestnuts killed off by the ink disease prior, left the chestnut population decimated. Those not killed off by the blight or ink disease were chopped down by European settlers desperate to salvage what they could from the worsening situation. 

While some saplings were saved and brought to areas west of the Appalachian mountains, the American chestnut has never recovered on the east coast of the US. However, scientists today are working to change this. 

See also: How Agroforestry Can Help the UK Reach Net Zero.

A New Hope for the American Chestnut

Founded in 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation was created by plant scientists and environmentalists dedicated to restoring the American chestnut tree to its original range in the eastern US. 

Their focus has been using modern scientific techniques to create American chestnut trees that have the unique property of being entirely resistant to the blight that killed off their cousins years ago. 

These trees are a hybrid of the American and Chinese chestnut trees, the Chinese tree is resistant to blight due to having evolved with it. They did this by crossbreeding the two together, creating a hybrid that is 50/50, then backcrossing with an American chestnut, creating a 75/25 cross. 

They repeated this process multiple times until there were no more characteristics of the Chinese chestnut present, save for the resistance to chestnut blight. In 2005 they harvested their first blight-resistant American chestnut and have been undergoing approval and testing in forest, orchard, and research laboratories. 

Right now, they are asking for help from the American public in determining which trees need to be planted and where in order to benefit genetic diversity. To identify American Chestnuts is to look closely at the leaf structure, the pattern of the bark, and the density of the leaves. 

Challenges are Still Ahead, Though

While this research has been a phenomenal development in helping save the American Chestnut trees and restore them to their native range, there are challenges ahead that must be faced in order to actually save the American Chestnut. 

For one, introducing genetically modified trees to the wild could have unforeseen consequences that could exacerbate the problem or create new ones that might not have an easy solution. 

This is always the case with genetically modified organisms, as the human hand tipping the scales in favor of certain species has had documented serious consequences. 

With that said, the ecological disaster of the chestnut blight was created due to human actions, for if the Chinese chestnut and the Portuguese cork oak trees had never been imported, these problems wouldn’t have been faced. It seems logical that we work to save the American Chestnut, too.

In other words, a human problem requires a human solution, and if the research is as promising as we hope, then roasting fresh American Chestnuts over a campfire on the east coast could come relatively soon. 

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  1. I have 2.5 a of land in S/E Penn where 1/2a is not even being mowed. I would be interested in planting a few of the resistant variety in that section to see if they could be established in this area although, at 72 I would not likely live long enough to see that momentous time. Still, perhaps my grandchildren would. Tell me what to do to aquire a few seedlings.

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