Oops They Did It Again!

A few months ago, I wrote about how thanks to genetic modification, scientists had discovered a way to keep the northern white rhino from going extinct. Well, they’ve managed to do it again – simply engineer a natural process through genetic workings – and this time it’s with the American chestnut, which disappeared from forests at an alarming rate after being exposed to C. Parasitica, a pathogenic fungus carried over from shipments of Japanese chestnut trees that wedges itself into the trunks of chestnut trees and chokes them to death by limiting their access to water and nutrients.

Up until the early 1900s, the American chestnut dominated forests in the northeast, making up one in four hardwood trees. Its role in the forest ecosystem was crucial for both plant life and animal life. Birds, deers, and other small mammals frequently turned to chestnuts as a source of sustenance while squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and burrowing insects sought shelter in the 40 meter high trees. The passenger pigeon, which received both food and protection from the chestnut became extinct shortly after the trees began to dwindle in number. Even the leaves of these now scarce trees were beneficial to animals. Because Chestnut leaves decay more rapidly than oak leaves, when they fall into streams, they are able to provide nutrients to aquatic larvae at a much faster rate. Even humans, who played a large role in the blight of the chestnut, benefitted from its existent. The “lightweight, rot-resistent, straight-grained” wood from chestnuts, was ideal for building “houses, barns, telegraph poles, rail ties, furniture, and musical instruments.”1 The significance of the chesnut’s role in the forest ecosystem is inarguable clear, which may be the reason why scientists are so adamant about re-introducing it into forests.

Genetic engineering has offered a particularly promising route to the restoration of the American Chestnut, as it did with the preservation of the northern white rhino. Scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (S.U.N.Y.-ESF) have discovered that if they take genes from plants like wheat, asian chestnuts, grapes, peppers, they can insert them into American chestnut trees and create a species that is nearly 100% identical the once abundant chestnut, but immune to C. parasitica.

Over decades, this new, genetically modified generation of American chestnuts will redefine forest ecosystems once again. For the first time in nearly a century, it’s decomposing leaves will offer a bountiful supply of nutrients to soils and streams, its shade will alter the makeup of plants on the forest floor, its trunks will provide shelter and protection to billions of insects and mammals, and its chestnuts will pile up on the forest floor for all to enjoy.

-Makena Mugambi


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