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Genetically Engineering an Icon: Can Biotech Bring the Chestnut Back to America's Forests? - Rebecca J. Rosen - The Atlantic


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"The forests of America," John Muir wrote in The Atlantic in 1897, "... must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted." Muir didn't know it yet, but by the time he wrote those words, the king of the eastern forests, the American chestnut tree, was already doomed. An interloping fungus had arrived at America's shores two decades earlier, and it would soon make short work of this then-common species. In less than a century's time, it killed off an estimated four billion of these towering trees.

Now, for the first time since the die-off, there is real hope. Researchers at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry have been trying to build a better American chestnut, one that would be resistant to the blight, and there's reason to think they've succeeded. Such a plant could repopulate the vast region of the eastern United States in which the tree was once found.

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The genetic engineering effort alone has gone on for more two decades, researchers at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry have been trying to build a better American chestnut, one that would be resistant to the blight.

"At that point, genetic engineering of trees was really in its infancy," William Powell of the SUNY lab told me. "There were only one or two trees that had been what we call transformed -- had a gene put in."

He and his colleague Charles Maynard had to begin before the beginning, figuring out first how to get new genes into their specimens' genomes, and then they could move on to seeing what manipulations might increase resistance. "I like to tell people we had to build the boat before we went fishing," Powell jokes.

4 billion trees dying is a staggering amount.

Still, what are the unintended consequences of bioengineering resistance to fungus?

That's always the question; the nature of "unintended" implies the answer might be unknowable.

For the Eastern hemlock, another species facing decimation (by an Asian insect, the hemlock woody adelgid), a natural insect predator might mean salvation:

http://www.ncsu.edu/univ_relations/news_services/press_releases/01_05/164.htm

This weekend has been very insect-affirming, I've noticed. Bugs have their place in the world.

http://pandawhale.com/post/20767/marcel-dicke-why-not-eat-insects-video-on-tedcom

RangeMap2006sff.jpg

It's going to be hard to get this image out of my head.

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