GMO Trees!

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American Chestnut– a pretty awesome tree (really!) that once dominated many American forests.  And made it’s way into popular folkore (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire”).  Alas, it pretty much went extinct in the mid 20th century to do a fungal blight.  There’s been a number of breeding efforts (with Asian Chestnuts) that have failed to bring it back.  Well now scientists at SUNY have created a GMO chestnut that is resistant to this fungus but otherwise has pretty much all the same properties of the classic American Chestnut.  Awesome!  I’m ready for some in NC.   This being a GMO, of course, things aren’t that simple.  I learned about this via Quirks and Quarks which eventually led me to this terrific Scientific American article that looks at the history of the the chestnut as well as the modern science.

Humans are both responsible for the demise of America’s chestnut forests and the only species on the planet that can do something about it. Since the 1980s several generations of Leopold’s colleagues at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (S.U.N.Y.–ESF) have toiled to restore the American chestnut to its native habitat. One semisuccessful strategy has been mating American chestnut with blight-resistant but much smaller Chinese chestnut, selectively breeding the hybrids to achieve a tree that is as genetically and physically similar to an American chestnut as possible, yet still resilient. Genetic engineering has offered another even more successful route to restoration. By taking genes from wheat, Asian chestnuts, grapes, peppers and other plants and inserting them into American chestnut trees, William Powell of S.U.N.Y.–ESF and scores of collaborators have created hundreds of transgenic trees that are almost 100 percent genetically identical wild American chestnut yet immune to C. parasitica. The scientists hope to get federal approval to begin planting these trees in the forest within the next five years (See “The American Chestnut’s Genetic Rebirth” in the March 2014 issue ofScientific American)…

If S.U.N.Y.–ESF’s Powell and his colleagues succeed in planting young transgenic blight-resistant chestnuts in the wild, chances are good that the trees will successfully expand their domain—relatively quickly in some areas; slowly but surely in others. Over the decades this new generation of American chestnuts will change the forest from floor to canopy: Their uppermost branches will bring shade to areas that have too little; their quickly decomposing leaves will carpet the soil and drift into streams and standing water, staining the water with nutrients; their trunks will be home to billions of insects and mammals, their branches the foundations of nests; and, one day, when the trees are mature enough, they will drop scores of chestnuts for the first time in more than a century.

This Ars Technica article looks at the policy/politics of the matter:

But there’s still the matter of public approval. One place these trees might be planted is on public parkland—the areas of protected forest that preserve the habitats where it once thrived contain many state parks and two national ones. But the mission of these parks is generally to preserve the natural ecosystem, and it’s safe to assume that some people will object to a transgenic plant being introduced to a natural ecosystem.

The other place the trees are likely to go is private properties. The research is funded in part by The American Chestnut Foundation, which is enthused about returning the species to the wild. Presumably, some of its members will be just as enthused about putting the trees in their yards. Whether their neighbors will be equally enthused is debatable.

So far, the debate within the US about the role of genetically modified organisms has been relatively muted compared to that in Europe. And, fortunately, the subject has not become politically polarized; concern about the risks posed by the technology are similar across the political spectrum. But that data also makes it clear that a lot of people do perceive a risk, despite decades of study and use that haven’t revealed any problems.

The use of GMO crops is likely to continue to expand—a recent analysis of global data suggests that GMO crops raise yields, lower pesticide use, and increase farmers’ income. But for most citizens, their use as crops is an abstraction, something that happens far away. It may be that the transgenic chestnut will be the first time many people are faced with seeing a GMO plant up close—and have to decide if they want one in their backyard.

As for that Chestnut tree in the backyard?  Sounds awesome– sign me up.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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