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NIFA program helps re-establish the American chestnut tree in the United States

By Shing Kwok, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
May 5, 2014

A growth chamber contains transgenic chestnuts produced from tissue cultures.  Photo by William Powell.

An American icon is being ravaged, and scientists are rushing to its rescue.

The American chestnut tree, which once dominated the eastern half of the United States, was prized for its naturally rot-resistant timber and as a food source — its nuts favored by humans and also used to fatten livestock before going to market. After more than 100 years of determined attack by an invasive species, the mighty American chestnut has been felled by the billions. Only a handful of groves remain, mostly in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and the Pacific Northwest — in regions far removed from its native east coast.

The first instances of chestnut blight disease were discovered in 1904 and researchers took up the case shortly thereafter, trying all the tools at their disposal — from grafting to traditional cross-breeding with disease-resistant Asian chestnut varieties. In some respects, they were successful, but the hybrids lost many of the traits prized in the American variety. Now, scientists are using the tools of modern science to bring this majestic giant back from the brink.

A team of researchers led by State University of New York (SUNY) scientist William Powell created the American Research and Restoration Project in which they used biotechnology to introduce resistance genes from Chinese chestnut varieties into the genome of the beleaguered American chestnut. Researchers are now monitoring the progress of hundreds of test trees they hope will be blight-resistant. The team has posted a time-lapse video on YouTube that shows four American chestnut seedlings react to a chestnut blight resistance assay.

Powell’s four projects are funded by more than $1 million in Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants (BRAG) administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). BRAG programs support risk assessment and risk management research regarding the introduction of genetically engineered animals, plants, or microorganisms into the environment. 

Powell’s research indicates that there are no significant detectable impacts to the environment between biotechnology-derived American chestnut trees that are resistant to chestnut blight versus chestnut trees generated by traditional breeding in terms. This project is a good example of how NIFA-funded biotechnology projects can help save a species of plants. The American Research and Restoration Project potentially will reactivate the dormant chestnut timber industry and wrestle away the bulk of the annual 20-million-pound nut crop from hybrid chestnut trees and imports. 


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