Around New England

American Chestnut Trees To Make A Comeback?

February 26, 2023

The once-ubiquitous American chestnut tree may be making a comeback starting this summer, as scientists get ready to release a new genetically engineered version designed to resist blight.

The blight, which came from Asia, appeared in the United States in 1904, and wiped out more than 98 percent of chestnut trees in America by the mid-20th century.

Chestnuts were already becoming hard to find when “The Christmas Song” was written in 1945, with the opening words “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”

Attempts to create a new version of the chestnut tree through genetic engineering began in 1989, according to Thomas Christopher, a botanist, who wrote a column about it in The Berkshire Eagle published February 22.

The effort is coming to fruition. The result, writes Christopher:  “… the genetically engineered trees still contract the blight, but it is no longer harmful to them.”

Scientists who have been working on the new version of the American chestnut tree report success. In November 2022, a draft environmental impact statement was published in the Federal Register. The U.S. Department of Agriculture may approve releasing the new version of the tree in the wild soon.

Christopher notes that genetic engineering is controversial because of unexpected side effects in some foods. But he says “No problems have emerged” in tests of the new American chestnut trees, and he endorses the effort as a way to “redeem a technology that has so often been used for environmental harm.”


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