Chasing the Chestnut

Efforts to save the American chestnut go beyond ecology. “We’ve lost the American elm and the flowering dogwood, yet all this effort is going into this one particular species,” says Dr. Brian McCarthy, the secretary of The American Chestnut Foundation’s (TACF”s) Ohio chapter, and a professor at Ohio University. “Chestnuts are one of the symbols of this country, right up there with Mom and apple pie, and losing the species would be like losing a part of American history.”

The Chinese chestnut (left) is resistant to the blight that decimated the American chestnut (right) in the early 1900s.© Great Smokey Mountains nat. Park Lib.

The American chestnut, which was virtually eliminated from Appalachian forests in the early 20th century by the chestnut blight pathogen, is being restored through several innovative programs around the country. Since 1983, TACF has been working on a hybridization program to transfer the Chinese chestnuts’ resistance to the blight to the American chestnut. McCarthy has found the ideal setting for the chestnut’s reintroduction, too: 200,000 acres of sandy Ohio land formerly used in strip-mining operations.

At the State University of New York’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), Dr. William Powell’s lab is investigating the genes that offer resistance to the chestnut blight. His group has also genetically engineered blight-resistant American chestnuts using a gene that comes from wheat. Their research may lead to blight-resistant chestnut trees being planted in as little as five years.

Not all efforts to save the chestnut rely on importing new genes into the species. The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation (ACCF) is working with Virginia Tech and Concord College researchers to find native chestnut trees showing some blight resistance and breeding those individuals. The results are still being evaluated, but the effort is important to those who wish to maintain a genetically pure strain of the species.

“With climate change, we really need to keep as many species as possible,” says Dr. Bob Grese of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. “Even if the trees aren’t 100% genetically pure American chestnuts, we need to keep what we can, and not let the American chestnut slip away.”

CONTACTS: American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation; The American Chestnut Foundation; American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project