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Bringing Back The American Chestnut

by Taylor White

29th September, 2020

The American Chestnut tree was once one of the most populous trees in the eastern half of the United States. It was a canopy tree in the Appalachian mountains and was the single most important source of food for the surrounding wildlife as it produced mast every year (unlike Oaks). The tree was a fast growing hardwood and rot resistant and provided substantial economic value to the communities living in its range.

The Chestnut once , covering more than 25% of Appalachian forests and numbered an estimated 3-4 billion trees in eastern half of the country. Now, only a handful remain due to the a fungal blight introduced from Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

The fungus produces cankers on the trunk of the tree, causing it to splinter and die after it grows to a particular size (usually no more than 20 feet). This blight took the tallest and most abundant tree in the eastern half of the and turned it into a functionally-extinct species at the forest floor.

There have been many attempts to breed blight resistant Chestnut trees. These usually involve splicing the American Chestnut with the Chinese Chestnut tree, which causes many translated genes and a significantly altered species.

For more than nearly 100 years, the country has been devoid of this keystone species, and now we are on the edge of a breakthrough to bring the tree back. The State University of New York (S.U.N.Y) team have created a genetically engineered species (Darling-58) to be resistant to the blight and allow for replanting American Chestnut trees across the country.

Testing of the species has been exhaustive, and the seed has only one modified gene, a gene from wheat. After many years of strenuous tests, the SUNY ESF team has petitioned the USDA to deregulate planting of the Darling-58 tree, meaning that you, and I, can contribute to restoring this species.

Please head over to the Federal Register to submit a comment, read through the formal petition to bring it back, and tell the USDA you want to help repopulate this amazing tree.

Lumberjacks stand by fully grown Chestnut trees, the scale illuminates their size.

Check out this award winning documentary on the Chestnut Tree as well!

by Taylor White