ZOMG! FRANKENCHESTNUTS!!

So this story about saving the American chestnut provides some hope (boldface mine):

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.

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.

It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic reversal this would be. Chestnuts were once one of the most abundant trees in the eastern United States, making up about 25 percent of the mature timber. Today,there is a section of its Wikipedia page titled “surviving specimens,” and it is not long.

The trouble began in the 1870s, when Americans began importing chestnuts from Japan to New York. The Japanese trees were shorter, making for a better orchard crop, as their nuts could be more easily reached. Unfortunately, those trees harbored Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungal blight to which they were resistant, but to which the American variety was highly susceptible. The fungus would attack a tree at a wound and then spread beneath its bark, releasing a toxin known as oxalic acid that would poison the tree and reduce it to a mere stump that would occasionally send out shoots, but could never grow tall. The blight was discovered in 1904 in what is now the Bronx Zoo by a scientist named Hermann Merkel. Within five decades of that date, the fungus had spread across the entire range of the American chestnut, from Maine to Mississippi.

Back in the day, I was something of an ecologist, but the concept of a ‘chestnut dominated forest’ is as alien to me as a ‘humpback whale dominated forest.’ They simply don’t exist anymore (the last of the older trees are dying or dead from both blight and natural causes). And this massive near-extermination is entirely our fault. It is not ‘natural’, which is to say, that our forests are not even close to natural, in considerable part due to this introduction of a pathogen.

Which brings us to the strategy to revive the American chestnut:

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…

In 1997, one of the lab’s graduate students attended a meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists, and brought back a book containing hundreds of abstracts. “I was just looking through it,” Powell recalled, “and I came across this abstract, the title of which was Expression of Oxalate Oxidase in Transgenic Plants Provides Resistance to Oxalic Acid and Oxalate-Producing Fungi.”

Now that may not sound like much if you don’t spend all your days thinking about chestnut blight, but to Powell, it struck a bell in his brain — oxalic acid is the toxin that chestnut blight produces. “Immediately I thought, well, here’s a gene that we could use in the chestnut.” That gene came from wheat….

But they wanted even higher levels of resistance yet, and now they think they might have done it: a transgenic line of chestnuts, more resistant to the blight than even the Chinese trees. The team, lead by then-graduate student Amelia Bo Zhang, published their results in Trangenic Research in March. Earlier this month, they planted these trees at the Lafayette Road Experiment Station — the first American chestnuts on this Earth that are highly resistant to the blight.

Welcome to the world of the Frankenchestnut. AAAAIIEEE!!! Or maybe not.

To my fellow lefties–and I would like to think I have established some genuine bona fides–there are two key points (snarky post title aside):

1) Monsato, like most multinational corporations, will do just about anything for a buck, consequences be damned.

2) Genetically engineered organisms, like any technology, can be used for good or evil (‘human’ insulin, used by diabetics, isn’t made from ground-up humans, it’s a human gene spliced into a bacterium, which is then grown and the insulin is harvested).

There is good that can come from this technology.

And because I can:

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4 Responses to ZOMG! FRANKENCHESTNUTS!!

  1. dr2chase says:

    Suffering from the aftermath of a particular powerful reaction to poison ivy, I sure do wish someone would look into engineering a non-poisonous ivy gene, particularly if it can be dominant trait.

    Fartless beans? mostly useless. Non-hot jalapeno? totally useless. Non-poisonous ivy, that would be a real benefit.

  2. Jan says:

    That would be so amazingly cool to have chestnuts back!

  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    It is not ‘natural’, which is to say, that our forests are not even close to natural, in considerable part due to this introduction of a pathogen.

    Are you saying it is supernatural? Because otherwise you seem to be using a definition of ‘natural’ which arbitrarily excludes the activities of one species of primate.

  4. dogctor says:

    As a vocal critic of Agricultural GMOs, I could get behind this one….IF (and it’s a big IF) proper blinded statistically powered feeding trials are performed on the chestnuts AND they are labeled as transgenic chestnuts.

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