Restoration of the American Chestnut Tree

  • TWCF Number:

    0248

  • Project Duration:

    September 1, 2017 - January 31, 2019

  • Core Funding Area:

    Genetics and Genius

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:

    $199,225

Director: William Allen Powell

Institution: ESF College Foundation, Inc.

Can the American Chestnut tree be restored to its former glory?

Castanea dentata comprised one quarter of the Appalachian forest until the early 20th century. The American chestnut provided a rot-resistant, straight-grained lumber pervasive in furniture, fencing, and construction; an annual nut crop; food and habitat for everything from bees to bears; and the leaves contained more important nutrients than other local vegetation, which were returned to the soil to foster biodiversity.

Sometime in the late 19th century, imported Asian chestnut trees carried with them a fungus that decimated the American chestnut population. The blight fungus colonizes wounds in the tree trunk, producing oxalic acid, which kills tree cells. Anything above the canker dies. Over the subsequent 50 years, the fungal blight spread through the entire population of nearly three billion trees. Today, the same region’s population of adult American chestnut trees over 24 inches in diameter is estimated to be fewer than 100. This has earned the tree a spot on the threatened species list, as critically endangered.

Now, the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project at SUNY ESF has successfully engineered a blight-resistant American chestnut. They developed the tree by using bacteria to introduce a gene that neutralizes the harmful effects of the blight toxin.

The modification to the American chestnut has made the dream of a blight-resistant species fully adapted to its environment a reality.

Approval from US federal regulatory agencies is now required to advance restoration efforts. Grant funding will be used to support key personnel and activities to acquire regulatory agency approvals for distribution. The grant will also sponsor engagement with local and state indigenous peoples.

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