The American chestnut tree has a good shot at making a comeback

Two sophisticated techniques could rescue the beloved American chestnut tree — but the riskier approach might work better

January 25, 2017
As a keystone species, the magnificent American chestnut tree once produced plenty of chestnuts every year for deer, bears and humans alike to eat. [Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons | CC0 1.0]

Henry David Thoreau’s description of a hike in the woods near Walden Pond includes a tribute to “boundless chestnut woods” and the pleasure he takes in harvesting a bushel of chestnuts, which he calls a “good substitute for bread.” But this delight is scarcely available to hikers in the Massachusetts towns of Lincoln and Concord today. Few mature American chestnut trees remain in this region and across the whole of eastern North America.

The tree species, part of the beech family of trees, fell victim to a fungal disease introduced by a foreign chestnut species in the early 20th century. Although many stumps remain in the wild and send up new shoots of green, they can only re-sprout so many times before they completely succumb to the Cryphonectria parasitica fungus and die away.

When Europeans first settled the eastern United States 200 years ago, the American chestnut covered 25 percent of the surrounding forests and served as an important food source for animals such as bears and birds. The trees also yield a highly rot-resistant wood that settlers fashioned into furniture, housewares and boxes ranging “from cradle to grave,” says Brian McCarthy, a forest ecologist at Ohio University.

Some researchers today are committed to restoring the ecologically and culturally significant tree in its original habitat, which once extended from Mississippi to Maine. Two approaches, selective breeding and genetic engineering, are under development to make the American chestnut resistant to blight. These methods could also give hope to conservationists who dream of reviving other native tree species, such as the American elm, that have also been wiped out by pests in the past century. But there is no agreement yet as to which approach will work best at saving the American chestnut.

For the past 30 years, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has diligently practiced selective breeding in an effort to revive the American chestnut. Its technicians cross the American species with a chestnut variety from China that resists the fungus. Offspring that are most resistant to the fungus are selected, especially those that are most similar to the American chestnut. These selections bear, for example, thinner and narrower leaves. Then those offspring are re-crossed with the American chestnut. Six generations of crossing have yielded a hybrid with 94 percent of its genes coming from the American variety. Last year, the American Chestnut Foundation planted 150,000 such hybrid seeds reports Ruth Goodridge, communications director of the Foundation, in an email. The ultimate goal is to generate seeds for the hybrid that can be sown to grow into blight-resistant trees.

Current fungal resistance levels vary, but breeders are making progress. “We expect to have seeds that will be in the range of Chinese chestnut resistance by 2024,” says Kim Steiner, a forest geneticist at Pennsylvania State University and senior science advisor for the Foundation.

The Foundation also plans to sequence the trees’ genomes to help select the best ones for breeding — those that inherit the greatest number of resistance genes.

However, the breeding approach has limitations. It can take decades to achieve success — meaning a tree that is resistant to fungus and is capable of reproducing takes a long time to cultivate. An American chestnut will only flower after it is four to five years old, and one needs to wait until then to do the breeding, says Scott Merkle, a forest biologist at the University of Georgia who is involved in genetic engineering efforts to revive the American chestnut.

Also, the genetics of the hybrids can be unpredictable, Merkle explains. “No matter how much traditional breeding is done, you still end up with a lot of genes from the Chinese chestnut, and you don’t know what these genes are,” Merkle says. That lack of precision can yield unwanted effects such as sterile trees.

The alternate approach, genetic engineering, involves inserting specific genes into the American chestnut to help it overcome the fungus. The most promising gene so far is a wheat gene called OxO, which produces an enzyme that breaks down a caustic acid used by the fungus to invade the tree bark. Chestnut trees carrying this gene will be resistant to the fungus, says William Powell, an biotechnologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry.

Despite the yelling-and-screaming controversies over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), neither Powell nor McCarthy anticipates any public outcry. “The specific gene that’s being inserted into [the] chestnut comes out of wheat, so every single person on earth that poured a bowl of cold cereal this morning ate that same gene,” says McCarthy.

Using a soil bacterium as the vehicle, Powell’s team inserts the wheat gene into the embryo of an American chestnut, which grows into a seedling in the lab before getting moved into a one-acre test orchard. Powell hopes to obtain governmental approval next year for planting in the wild.

The application is a complicated and expensive process, Powell says. But without the go-ahead from relevant government agencies, his team can never achieve the goal of restoring the American chestnut.

If the regulatory hurdle is cleared, some researchers feel we should still be wary about the genetic engineering approach.

For instance, the release of genetically modified trees into the forest could have some unforeseen long-term impacts, says Chad Oliver, an environmentalist at Yale University. Researchers should be cautious, Oliver says, about “introducing something into the tree that could get out into the wild that we’ll regret.” For American chestnut, however, the risk is very small, he says, that “some super-positive gene” inserted into the genome of the American chestnut — such as the wheat gene that gives the tree a positive feature of blight resistance — might have unforeseen side effects as GMO chestnuts breed in the wild with the few, remaining wild American chestnut trees or hybrids. In other types of trees with a large wild population, the genetically modified individuals might be more likely to cause problems, Oliver says. “We should, of course, monitor crosses of GMO chestnuts with others to ensure the new gene does not alter all future chestnuts’ ability to survive,” adds Oliver in a follow-up email.

Oliver is in favor of the return of the American chestnut and not worried about GMO chestnut trees choking out other trees in the forest. “Trees have a very good habit of [co-existing] — some in shades, and some in sunlight,” says Oliver. “The [American chestnut] is not going to become a super tree that kills everything else out.”

Research geneticist Dana Nelson of the USDA Forest Service also objects to the genetic approach — but on an evolutionary basis. Efforts that rely on genetic engineering replicate a particular genotype — an American chestnut’s genetic makeup plus the inserted wheat gene — a million times. This is “a bad approach for restoration,” says Nelson. “[T]hat population you produce doesn’t have the genetic diversity to adapt to the variable environment and climate.”

Powell acknowledges this drawback. To solve the problem, he plans to cross his GMO trees with surviving American chestnut trees. Trees with the fungus-resistant wheat gene are more likely to survive, leading to a population that has the desired trait but is otherwise more genetically diverse.

For its part, the American Chestnut Foundation agrees that the best path forward is to combine the two approaches. “It’s not an either-or [question], we need both,” says Lisa Thomson, president and CEO of the Foundation.

Restoring the tree’s historic 25 percent coverage in eastern American forests also will require some public participation. Down the line, Powell hopes to disseminate his blight-resistant seeds for people to plant in their backyards. The Foundation has thousands of volunteers in 16 state chapters who can help.

It might be a campaign that catches on. Only six percent of people surveyed in 2016 by Mark Needham, a forest ecologist at Oregon University, think that we should let chestnut blight take its natural course.

Ultimately, the stakes are higher than just one species. Threatened by pests and foreign diseases, other classic North American trees such as ash, walnut and hemlock, might need help surviving into the next century. Successes with the chestnut tree could provide lessons that help conservationists save those trees as well, and perhaps ensure a diverse forest that can provide a habitat for living things, including people who enjoy hiking through woods more like those Thoreau walked through over 150 years ago.

About the Author

Cici Zhang

Cici Zhang grew up in China and studied neuroscience at Swarthmore College and (for her M.S.) Washington University. While she came to America for endless possibilities, she’s still surprised her blogging could start a journey towards being a science journalist in NYC. Combining meeting people, traveling and her love for science and words, this career seems like a dream in reality. Cici enjoys Instagram, movies and beautiful things that satisfy her curiosity.

You can follow Cici on Twitter here.



todd see says:

I have 6 different kind chestnut one is American.I plant it nuts what kind tree will these new one be??

John Lee says:

I love how those in favor of GMOs impose their will on everyone and everything else. These freak trees are unnatural, as in could never occur through sexual reproduction in the wild.

Author also missed the third method of attempting to bring back the American chestnuts, which involves inoculating trees with a hypovirulent strain of the chestnut blight which is weak enough the trees can fight it, and once present has taken up the potential niche for the hypervirulent blight strain. Trees grow slower as they are fighting a disease, but they survive and thrive. It’s a method similar to humans inoculating themselves with the flu virus.

mike says:

How can Chestnut trees be purchased?

John Fetter says:

I have a tree that comes from a blight free tree in PA. I have never gotten chestnuts from it .

anthony mills says:

Do you not think, if the trees themselves had the choice, they would not grasp the lifeline of a resistant gene instantly? Every human is an aggregation of co-evolved organisms, right down to the cellular level [mitochondria], such that only your left leg toe-to-knee is exclusively human. Trees also, so the introduced assistance of a gene which they might accidentally acquire, indeed by the same vector, but over a much extended time scale is just a variation on a “natural” process.

Bernard Carrier says:

Do you think 2 trees of pure american castanea after 35 years of growth can be considered resistant of this blight ? They have been producing seeds for the last 10 years , squirrels have sown many of them around our propriety . Maybe it is because we are far from the sickness ? we are in Quebec city and there is really not much of those tree around . I am always worry about the virus …so far except a few damage from frost the are going very fine , last year was particularly a productive season . Thank you

Erik van Lennep says:

I’ve been following the work of the American Chestnut Foundation since the beginning, and have always thought they exemplify the sort of collaboration, vision and persistence needed to address so many of our problems. No offence to the author of this article, but it seems a bit of forest-derived perspective would have helped.

The time frame mentioned between generations, and the suggestion that this is a problem is just silly. A tree capable of growing from seed to first flowering in four years is FAST. I’m not sure that twirling about with gene transfer would take any shorter, but sure, conventional breeding is incremental, so you’d need to multiply that out by a few generations. The possibility of using DNA mapping to identify seedlings carrying desired traits (even at the embryo stage) would speed that up, while still permitting the work to be done via traditional cross-pollination and selection.

And John Lee’s comment re: hypo virulence is important. Studies have been conducted on this for decades now, starting I think, in Sicily where it was first reported. The last time I checked into that was many years back, but the issue around application in North America seemed more related to the cost of searching out and individually inoculating the surviving trees, than it did the effectiveness. But surely research has evolved a lot since then.

The issue around inserting alien genes is actually a swarm of issues, none of which to my knowledge, have been solved. The “soil-born bacterium” used was not named in the article. This is important because bacteria are common vectors for gene transfer; it’s part of their own survival strategy. They do it routinely. The ordinary behavior of the bacteria used to carry the alien gene is important to know. Is it really soil-born, or is it carried by insects or the wind, possibly even in the tree’s own pollen?

And then there is the issue of interspecies transfer of genetic material, chemicals, nutrients, hormones, and of course disease such as virus and bacteria….. much of it happening via root grafts, many of which can occur across species and even genera. Studies continue to demonstrate that information in the form of chemicals and DNA is continuously being shared throughout the forest community, and this happens via root grafts and is also mediated by bacteria and fungi.

Finally, we should think about economics and privatisation of Nature. GMO research is costly, and despite the regularly released spin to the contrary, companies engaged in it do so with a clear intention of ownership as far down the road as they can project. Would genetically modified chestnuts be released into the public domain, or would the developers insist on maintaining rights to their modified genetic structure? So far, history indicates the latter, coupled with frequent attempts to bully and dominate growers, markets and entire nations into accepting control by companies which simultaneously eek to eradicate traditional crops and substitute their own patented lines. This would be a new disaster for chestnut recovery and for the forests the trees inhabit. And remember the ongoing lawsuits by GMO developers of modified corn or oil seed rape? Farmers are still being sued by agribusiness when the alien DNA appears in traditionally grown crops, even polluting the fields of organic farmers. (It’s the traditional and organic farmers who should be suing the GMO companies instead).

Like corn, chestnuts are wind-pollinated. Would GMO chestnuts stimulate a new round of lawsuits mounted by the better-funded GMO producers? Would law-makers anticipate this problem by insisting that the trees be released into the public domain? Not likely, at least not until special interest money is removed from politics, along with the removal of an entire generation of old-guard policy makers addicted to that stream of extra money.

Cici Zhang, the article was well written, even if incomplete. I’d love to read a new version based on you digging deeper into some of these issues.

Jim Reilly says:

A lot of the above mentioned problems can be resolved by breeding pure American chestnut survivors with pure American chestnut survivors. One such organization is currently taking this path. It is the “American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation.” A small but very dedicated group that already has produced some promising strains that appear to carry some degree of blight tolerance. While I hope all methods of re-establishing the American chestnut to its former glory are successful, the shortest path( Am. chestnut survivors X Am. chestnut survivors) sounds like a sure winner.

Is there only a hope/plan to introduce genetically modified species into the wild, or is it already being done now?

Considering things like how the same gene (in people) which affects malaria resistance allows cystic fibrosis, are such inter-relations common in plants too? If so, how do you know that you wouldn’t be like a genetic engineer who had known one of the two facts but not the other and would unintentionally aggravate one disease in trying to eradicate the other.

Following on from the previous question, if you did think there might be other effects besides blight resistance, do you expect that the other major effects would be something not related to any disease at all and which would be totally unexpected, many years in the future (in the same way the blight was an unpredictable effect of human activity in the first place, mobility/invasive species).

Is there any extra concern — or is it even true at all — that you are introducing not a crop species (which can be discontinued and is expected to become extinct when it is no longer needed), but a wild species, and therefore you are affecting not only the aims of your planned landowners but affecting nature itself.

davek says:

Remember in Jurassic Park Movie, “Nature always finds a way”…
Mother Nature will take care of these things as she sees fit.
It never ceases to amaze me how a heavy handed approach generates a Generational problem… and then a heavy handed approach is supposed to fix it?

But it’s more like the Butterfly Effect than anything…
The more we tamper the further things skew from Natural Selection.
Requiring our self engrandeured management. Keeps us busy anyway…
But it took millions of years to evolve the American Chestnut…
I don’t think we are going to approximate a millions years of evolution even with some fancy GMO bling… Good Luck with that!
Im sure as many problems surface as you hope to alieve..
But Nature finds a way.. just give it time my friend!

Who knows… maybe climate change will shift things, maybe even wipe out the Appalachian forests today as we know it. Fires are gaining scale and frequency along with Pests boring beetles weevils and Dogwood diseases, acid rain conifer bleaching, you name it. The shift has already begun.

Your little fancy project seems kind of mute in relation to alll that…
shift happening! And I LOVE!!! the American Chestnut

Arnottsimon says:

wow that really interesting post, techniques to save trees are best .
we all should try to plant more and more trees in our life. trees gives us essential things .

I like the idea of gene modification but agree with one respondent about the privatization or patenting of the process which under our current state of politics would not be prevented by our money-driven congress even though the taxpayers supplied the research funds so that one could not count on altruism with regard to the application of the research.
The idea of finding a less virulent strain of the fungus and the inoculation of existing trees along with new plantings might fit in with an evolutionary approach.
Alternatively, a modification of the DNA of the fungus itself might be a more profitable approach since it is the offending species and surely reproduces more rapidly than the trees do.
I live near Asheville, NC where I am constantly finding seed producing American Chestnuts growing in yard settings and in wild locations. Most are of around 16 in diameter at 4-5 ft height. Some of the seeds I find have been destroyed by a sort of worm which creates a small hole in the husk of the nut but others without the hole do produce seedlings. I have still not produced a seedling from a nut but then, I am only an amateur!
I have seen very large old chestnut trees in England and would hope that people in the future might enjoy our botanic heritage here as well, even if it is only in The Great Smokey Mountains National Park on the NC, Tenn border.
Best wishes for the success of the project.

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