Will Genetic Modification Save The Chestnut Tree?



I am against Big Ag trying to use genetic modification to monopolize the food business, but I don’t damn all genetic modification. First of all it is useless to do so because there are a zillion possible applications of this biotechnology and science is not about to abandoned all of them. And there is good in it I think, although I am not knowledgeable enough to speak with any authority. For example, scientists have been experimenting for some time at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to put a wheat gene (of all things) into the American chestnut tree that helps the tree to resist the blight that brought it to near extinction. The wheat gene keeps oxalate or oxalic acid from accumulating in the wood of the tree. Oxalate is a necrotic agent to which the tree is extremely susceptible, and if I am starting to sound erudite, I must add that I am just repeating what the news is reporting and don’t really know oxalate from oxbows.

It sounds like good news to me because I think losing the vast stands of American chestnuts in the Appalachians a century ago was a terrible tragedy that has not been properly recognized. This is just my theory, but I think that the loss of this tree is why we associate the Appalachian mountains with poverty. I will even go farther and say that a forest of hundreds of thousands of Chestnut trees could enable a human society to live virtually forever at peace with the environment and even (now you know I am taking leave of my senses) allow a society to live independent of the kind of destructive money economy that is now threatening to do us in.

How so? Last week I talked about king corn and what a toll it can take on human societies that rely on it too exclusively for sustenance. The American chestnut was the corn of the eastern United States mountain ranges but it took no toll whatsoever on the people who lived on its beneficence. It did not have to be cultivated at all. It renewed itself. Its bountiful nuts fed people, made flour for breads, and fattened hogs and livestock. Most important, the trees grew on land not otherwise appropriate for farming. No fossil fuel or fertilizer was needed to produce all that food. Its leaves are richer in the key plant nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other forest trees. More than that, chestnut wood is very slow to decay and makes an excellent building material and fuel for home heating. One of the reasons the Great Depression was so bad, I like to argue, is that it coincided with the death of all those trees. The mountain people, deprived of their traditional way of living, migrated to cities, looking for work. I am not afraid to risk sounding too blue sky and say that if we could again clothe the Appalachian range with American chestnuts, we could make a huge leap forward in reducing carbon pollution as well as a lot of other environmental dangers and once again have an economically free and independent society living there.

For a century, foresters and scientists have been hard at work trying to save the American chestnut and restore it to its former glory. Their work has been slow but steady and may result in success without gene modification. But if the latter works or speeds up the process, I’m all for it. Already scientists have demonstrated that chestnuts from trees with the wheat gene in them are safe to eat.

Doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to find out that there are quite a few small stands of American chestnut still surviving. No one knows for sure why, but it appears that they are growing in locations where the fungus can’t spread easily, as it could through most of the Appalachian mountain range. Crosses between various Asian chestnuts and our native tree resist the disease and are now growing all over. Whether these crosses will ever equal the American version in tree size, quality of wood, or ability to spread and acclimate to the American chestnut’s range remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I vote to add the gene-modified chestnut to the effort.


I remain leery of genetic modifications for any purpose. Humans simply don’t know enough about the long-term impact of this tinkering, and I suspect many of the effects are going to be subtle, hard to research and quite likely suppressed by those who have a financial interest in GMO products. I am reminded of the tobacco industry suppressing research, the drug industry suppressing research, the car industry hiding safety defects so they didn’t to do recalls.The law of unintended consequences means there will be fallout from this experiment — could be negative, could be positive. Any farmer or rancher knows there is a heck of a lot more going on in the fields than science can explain, understand or even study, because of the immense complexity of the natural system. Chris comments that Mother Nature is not effective any more — I submit that if the natural system cannot handle the changes humans have made in the environment, humans making more changes isn’t going to help. Our record so far is pretty dismal in many areas…

The American Chestnut was incredibly productive. Early travellers had to push their horses through drifts of chestnuts up to their horse’s chests (chest-nuts?). The slow conventional breeding of a resistant tree has taken over 50 years and is only now producing saplings that appear to be somewhat resistant. We will not know for many more years how the mature trees thrive. The blight was introduced by man. The Japanese cross being utilized was introduced by man to try to ameliorate the damage. If introducing a wheat gene helps resolve the oxalate problem, then it should be explored. “Mother Nature” is not effective anymore to counter all of the changes mankind has introduced into the environment. Unreasoning fear of GMO to the absolute exclusion of any genetic research may end up with a planet where no exotic species survive, because we deliberately turned our back on one of the few tools that had great potential for good. The fact that biological warfare is possible means that we should do absolutely no research on biochemistry? If an african elephant could be genetically altered to have no tusks, and the alternative would be continual poaching until they are extinct, what would you choose? I will choose the attainable good over the unobtainable perfect any day.

I don’t agree with genetic modifying anything. What happens in subsequent generations? With trees our generation will never know but it will already be out there. Beets, zucchini, corn, soy, cotton, salmon, pigs (Canada), trees, mosquitoes… In nature species die out or at least are vastly limited,and are replaced by others. That is the way the earth revolves. One year we get an abundance of rodents, the next year we get an abundance of foxes, owls, and other raptors, that eat them. Things are suppose to die off so other things can replace them. Sometimes an individual other times the species. We, humans, are part of that equation. We change it just by our existence. Perhaps going down to the basics of dna structure will make change more rapid. I am just one person in Vermont in the suburbs of Boston. At least this is not making a ‘CIDE’ out of it.

I would encourage those commenting about what the effects of this minimal gene substitution into the Chestnut will do, to learn a bit more about gene splicing. It is very precise and can be targeted at a single bit of protein. The problem with Star corn is that precisely transplanted molecule is a bug poison that is present in the kernals we eat. And somehow, the USDA doesn’t consider this a new food additive. If it was a chemical being added to packaged food, it would have to go through all kinds of testing before release. This is a regulatory problem caused by industry lobbies.

Completely agree with you, Gene. It’s a tool that can be used for good things or bad. I hope they can find a solution to the chestnut blight. I’ve planted a few nuts from the Michigan survivors here in Wisconsin away from the disease and I hope they will live a long time.

I remember sometime in the last couple years you referenced the American chestnut and I believe it was Jan Steineman in the comments that mentioned the book “American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree” by Susan Freinkel. On his recommendation I found a used copy and would highly recommend it also. It contained a chapter about those working with genetic modification and treated the controversy and pros/cons in an evenhanded method as I remember.

Beth and I recently saw the film “The Imitation Game” which deals with the English code breakers of nazi military transmissions. One of the most interesting results of their success was the moral quandary of concealing it enough to keep the nazi’s from changing their codes – the realization that to save the most people they would have to deliberately not save everybody that they could. I say that only to agree that genetic modification that changes the balance of nature so quickly ( and probably blindly ) presents its own unique quandary.

Keep stirring the pot. We will be attending the OEFFA conference on Saturday and hope to see you and Carol there if the weather doesn’t get too disagreeable.

    Russ, we plan to be there from about 10:30 to 2:30. Yes, the genetic modification surely does present its own unique quandary.
    Thanks to all of you above for your comments. They help me immensely as I try to figure out what I should write, if anything, about GMOs. Gene

It’s certainly an interesting time we live in, and in both cases, there’s now hope for the chestnut tree.

I disagree with some of the comments here: Both cross-pollinating the American and Japanese chestnut tree or introducing one blight-resistance gene sequence into the true American chestnut tree is science, not natural evolution. In this specific case, none are concerned by ethical issues. If anything, what do you think is safer? Introducing one gene sequence or introducing half the whole genome of the Japanese tree into the American one? Scientists are doing a good job regressing the most visible undesired Japanese traits, but they’re still only about 95% gene-identical to the American tree, after decades of selection and more decades to come. Time should not matter though: There’s no American chestnut trees anymore, except a few survivors, we lived without them for over a century, mankind can wait another century for the perfect chestnut replacement, even if we are impatient to see results during our lifetime.

In both case, the resulting tree will not be the same as the original American chestnut tree, that’s the whole point, we need to come to terms with that, but the GE tree will probably be safer because the impact of this one gene sequence will be much easier to control than the unknown impact of hundreds of new genes on that unnatural new cross.

There are many other avenues we should explore too, being forced to choose between only two solutions is not ideal. We could work on the insect that brings the blight, on the blight itself, on other solutions for the tree, like making its sap unattractive to the insect, on a combination of such solutions for more resilience, etc.

I am waiting for The American Chestnut Foundation’s work on bringing back this wonderful tree to come to fruition. Their efforts over the years have lead to many promising lines of chestnuts that show resistance to the blight. I look at GE as one of those just because it can be done should it be done quandaries. I trust the ways of the natural world a whole lot more than the hubris of a bunch of impatient lab rats.

My wife says she has left room for chestnuts in our forest acreage. She hit every one of the forest sessions at last week’s PASA Conference and is looking forward to reintroducing this tree to our valley. (I followed my belly with four season greens and berry crops.)

The future of the American Chestnut is looking bright enough without having to resort to genetic modification. Gene, I can only hope that we have you around long enough so you can see them growing outside the confines of the TACF’s orchards.

Fight the cold this weekend with a hot oven and fresh baked fruit pie!

I REALLY hope that those GMO chestnut trees do not get planted out. As a person with a fairly severe allergy to wheat, I’m scared of what pollen or nuts from such trees could do to me.

Every plant and animal is intricately woven into its environ. Maybe we can make a momentary improvement in one aspect of a plant or animal that helps it survive when it wouldn’t have otherwise. But have we really helped that species and the rest of the environment? Species die out as a rule because they are unfit to survive in their particular environments. If they do survive, it is because they mutate and change into something that can survive and is better off for the change.

I don’t believe that scientists (people like the rest of us who are not all-knowing and who don’t even agree with one another and who are often funded by people who are interested in more than the science) can anticipate all the unintended consequences of fiddling with putting a wheat germ into a tree.

    Betty, couldn’t agree more with your comments. Also, one thing that was not mentioned in Gene’s post is who would “own” these trees? I can only assume the “technology” used to “create” these organisms would aggressively protect the patented investment.

    An example of succession and survival of the fittest: Privet is supposed to be an invasive species that we’ve been told should be rooted out and destroyed (yeah, right, has anyone tried that on more than a couple of acres?). Privet has invaded and is well established on my farm. But over time, we’ve learned to use it, take advantage of it, and work with it. Being evergreen here and at 18 percent crude protein, you can’t beat it for goat browse in the winter. The honeybees and a host of other insects feed on it’s nectar and pollen in the spring, and a variety of birds eat the berries in the summer and fall. It may well be the most valuable “crop” on my homestead!

I don’t know if I agree, but it’s interesting to ponder and of course it is happening no matter my conclusion. Bringing back the Chestnuts does seem very wise for our future, and I was glad to hear a bit more about their history in the US. You’ve probably heard of Mark Shepard in your research- he’s doing a pretty big “au natural” experiment with Chestnuts on 100 acres in SW Wisconsin, growing a bunch of species and letting the winners stand for themselves. Here’s his website http://www.newforestfarm.net/ Pretty awesome stuff, we have 100 chestnut trees planted on our farm from his stock.

Genetic engineering is entirely unnecessary, and quite risky imho. We’ve already bred blight resistant chestnuts. A bit of genetic *analysis* could certainly speed up the process, with loads of advantage and no downside, allowing us to evaluate trees for resistance even before they sprout!

But alas… unless we can keep our CO2 emissions in check (not likely), appalacia will not likely support these trees for more than a few decades before their climate zone shoots up to the arctic.

This is one application of genetic engineering I am comfortable with. I have seen the breakthroughs the hardwood tree improvement people are pioneering and there is great promise in their work. We have invasive species like emerald ash borer where GE may have a solution as well. The same holds true for thousand canker disease in walnut.

As long as we are a global community invasive pests will prevail. GE is one tool in the scientific kit to slow the decline of hardwood tree species. At least with long lived species like trees we can monitor the effects over long periods verses the wholesale planting of millions of acres of food or feed crops that have short life cycles and are a direct part of the food chain.

American Chestnut seedlings are offered for sale from some nurseries in the Pacific Northwest (Burnt Ridge Nursery in Onalaska in Washington State comes to mind). Evidently our Pacific Northwest Climates with wet winters and warm to hot, dry summers don’t favor the blight propagating itself. There are some Chestnut growers in the Pacific Northwest that offer chestnut products but it seems they sell out quickly.

Some of the products they offer include chestnut products for making gluten free chestnut beer and dried chips for bread etc. .Being able to enjoy beer and bread without wheat gluten or other substances which cause illness to those who don’t tolerate wheat is a definite bonus for both producers and consumers. I’m still not sure why the Chestnut industry hasn’t taken off locally like the apples, pear and soft fruit industry in the Pacific Northwest.

In addition there is a Pacific Northwest native tree which according to my old forestry book is related to both oak and chestnut which provides some chestnut like nuts that are a very shall we say :”interesting” ingredient in soups in my experience (Meaning I really liked them but other in my family didn’t care for the texture or taste. That tree is the Golden Chinquapin, (Castanopsis chrysophylla) which grows in several areas around the Pacific Northwest and exhibits some of the Chestnut characteristics Gene described so well. I was able to purchase some nuts from a Farmer’s Market in Portland, Oregon in the Fall of 2011 inasmuch as my efforts to find some nuts on my own resulted only in finding burrs left behind from hungry, industrious squirrels. That pot of soup let me be emotionally in touch with the Appalachian folk of old for a few minutes.

I’ve read that in ancient times “Civilized” agricultural peoples looked with disdain upon cultures that depended upon chestnuts because they felt these forest folks were lazy because they didn’t cultivate the ground to obtain their bread. I’m thinking the agriculturists never experiencing the leg cramping joys of picking nuts from the ground, the backaches from packing them in baskets to storage areas, storing them in structures that had to be built by hand labor, sleepless nights from guarding the nuts from squirrels and other pests, then on a daily basis processing those nuts into daily bread. Somehow the soil destroying effects of tillage to grow grain didn’t register as important. If the Chestnut forest people had performed tillage probably the thin mountain forest soils would have eroded away quickly to bare rock. I suspect the real reason for disdain was jealousy that the Chestnut forest people obtained their bread without tillage,reaping and sowing etc..

Considering the huge role the Chestnut has played and can play again in bettering people’s lives as Gene points out I certainly hope that scientists can use Genetic techniques or whatever else works to restore such a magnificent tree to the American Landscape. I keep thinking that sipping a cold chestnut beer after a hot day of work is something I’ll need to put on my theoretical bucket list.

Thanks again Gene for your thought provoking commentary.

I know – nothing is completely definitive, but this web site might help folks to understand a lot more about GE’d “products”. A wonderful web site loaded with information. You are free to agree or disagree, it matters not to me. But the information IS out there. PRAST stands for Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology.

[quote from the article, in Step Two]
For this reason the commercial application of genetic engineering of any organism for non-contained usage is unjustifiable. It is an unscientific experimentation with unpredictable and potentially hazardous and irreversible outcomes. This includes genetic engineering of plants, trees, bacteria, insects and animals.
[end quote]

This is the INDEX page:


I wonder, too, whether the insects which once pollinated the American chestnut can still pollinate any potential GMO version, or for that matter the hybrid Asian-American trees? Have any of the experimental trees reached maturity sufficiently to produce pollen and set seed?

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