In the late 1800s, 25% of hardwood trees in North America’s eastern forest were American chestnuts. 40 meters high and 2 meters across, they provided abundant resources for both people and wildlife in the form of food, shelter, and building materials. Lightweight, rot-resistant, straight-grained and easy to work with, chestnut wood was used to build houses, barns, telegraph poles, railroad ties, furniture and even musical instruments. The rapid decline of the chestnut due to the pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica has been a subject of much debate and despair over the years: but now, chestnuts engineered to battle the fungus might give the iconic trees a chance to reclaim the North American stage.
By taking genes from wheat, Asian chestnuts, grapes, peppers and other plants and inserting them into American chestnut trees, William Powell of S.U.N.Y.–ESF and scores of collaborators have created hundreds of transgenic trees that are almost 100 percent genetically identical wild American chestnut yet immune to C. parasitica. The scientists hope to get federal approval to begin planting these trees in the forest within the next five years.