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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.


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:

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

I've been reading up on the campaign to get rid of mosquitoes that cause dengue fever via GMO:

One of the arguments at play is that it's OK to take measures that roll back pests such as mosquitoes or fungi to their HISTORICAL territories before modern man fucked things up. So kind of cleaning up our mess rather than extending our reach. On the other hand you could say why pick one arbitrary moment in evolutionary time and try to "fix" things to stay as they were at that moment?

The argument I prefer is more about limiting the downsides of our bumbling attempts to play god. Something like a fungus-resistant chestnut tree... OK it might lead to the fungus evolving into an even more deadly fungus. But wouldn't the net of all that just be that the GMO chestnut trees would die off again? The mosquito thing seems more troubling because it could open up a niche that an even worse mosquito could fill very quickly.


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

I recently read a history of America forests and they made a big point about how important chestnut wood was to Americans before the 20th century. It is one of the strongest, most rot-resistant, and most beautiful woods known to man and was the wood of choice for things that needed to be long-lasting such as log cabins, fences, chairs, floorboards, wagons, and -- perhaps most importantly -- railroad ties and telephone poles. One way to think of it was that in the east it filled the niche that redwood fills in the far west... but even more beautiful and with the added benefit of chestnuts.

Yeah, I only today realized how much more delicious their chestnuts are:

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