Ever heard the song “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and wonder where the hell all the chestnut trees in America are? Well, it’s actually quite a tragic tale.
The American Chestnut used to extremely abundant in North America. So much so, that it is said that one in every four hardwood trees in its range was an American Chestnut. These trees were especially good since they grew quickly and the quality of wood they produced was unparalleled. The wood was strong yet easy to cut, grew quickly, not full of knots, resistant to decay because of large amounts of tannin, and in addition, it also stored a vast amount of CO2 which helped the eco-system greatly. As a bonus, you could also eat the chestnuts, which are still a staple in Europe around Christmas time. These nuts were also eaten by many of the local game before winter. It was almost the perfect tree.
In the early 1900’s the blight was brought to America by accident. It was believed to have come from China or Japan, where the chestnut species from there is much more resistant to the fungus. Once it got to America though, it immediately began decimating the indigenous tree population. The blight is a fungus and once it takes hold it ravages the tree. Within forty years of its introduction, the blight had killed over 4 billion trees. Despite large efforts to save and quarantine the tree, it virtually disappeared.
A New Hope
As early as 1930, scientists puzzled over how to stop the spread of the disease, but to almost no avail. Luckily, in a few remote places, patches of trees survived where the fungus didn’t. Several sprouts in more effected areas still exist as well. These grow just large enough to lay seeds and then almost immediately succumb to the blight.
Recent technological advances have made the fight to preserve and reintroduce the American Chestnut seem more realistic. Scientists are working on creating a resistant cross-breed of the tree and have had some success. The new trees seem to be resistant to the fungus and retain 94 percent of the original American Chestnut genes. The question now becomes whether or not the tree will be able to survive and compete with local trees. These trees were produced by traditional breeding methods, but there is also an effort to genetically engineering a resistant tree in Syracuse New York. Several scientists have expressed qualms with this approach. Within a few years though, we’ll see if this new strain of the tree is able to survive and if it does it will mean the return of one of America’s great environmental treasures.
What do you think? Should Scientists genetically engineer a new tree to create a resistant strain?