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Should we resurrect the American chestnut tree with genetic engineering?

Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The wild chestnuts around this leafy college town used to grow in such great numbers that locals collected the nuts by the bushel and shipped them off to New York City for a small fortune.

These days, though, it can be hard to find a single tree thanks to a devastating blight imported from Asia in the late 1800s.

"Every fall, I look for the burs," said Neil Patterson of the Tuscarora Nation, a Native American tribe that has lived in the region for centuries. His ancestors depended on the trees for food and medicine. But in 10 years of searching, he's never found the spiny pods that hold the chestnut's prized fruit.

Soon, scientists at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry here could change that. They say they've found a way to resurrect the chestnut by giving it a gene from wheat that shields it from the blight's poison. If the federal government gives its blessing, these genetically engineered trees could be ready to plant in a few short years.

It would mark the first use of the technology for ecological restoration, and probably not the last.

Across the country, forests face growing threats from invasive pests, diseases and climate change. Elm, ash, oak, hemlock and whitebark pine are all dying in huge numbers.

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But genetic engineering raises a host of difficult questions. Like how much humans should intervene in nature in the name of conservation. And whether saving a tree through genetic engineering makes a forest more wild, or less so.

These are issues the Tuscarora and the five other nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy are grappling with as they confront the prospect of the GE chestnut. Some see the tree as a way to restore an important piece of the ecosystem and their culture. Others question whether an engineered tree can do either, said Patterson, the assistant director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY ESF.

"We just don't know about this next version 2.0 of chestnuts," he said.

Once upon a time, American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) spread their leafy boughs from Maine to Mississippi, accounting for a quarter of the trees in some forests. More than 100 feet tall and 10 feet around, they earned the nickname "Redwood of the East."

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