Can Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Save an American Icon?
It keeps smoldering at the roots / And sending up new shoots / Till another parasite / Shall come to end the blight
So wrote Robert Frost, in 1936, speaking hopefully of the American Chestnut tree and its fight against a fungal plague. The mighty trees were falling ill to toxic invaders, but naturalists hoped they would rise above the challenge on their own, fighting nature with nature.
This woody behemoth used to make up a quarter of American timber in Eastern forests. The might of these trees, evident in the photo above from ca. 1910, reminds me of towering redwoods, dwarfing the lumberjacks flanking their mighty trunks.
Unfortunately, Frost was wrong. The chestnut-killing tree fungus threatening the American Chestnut was accidentally imported by farmers along with a Japanese species of chestnut preferred by farmers at the time. Within half a century of hitting our shores, that blight had wiped out a quarter continent’s worth of old-growth American Chestnuts (a very sad Wikipedia entry catalogues the remaining few specimens).
But thanks to biotechnology and genetic engineering, William Powell and his lab at SUNY think they can engineer chestnuts resistant to the fungus. Traditional crosses with resistant species (like the Japanese species that started it all) haven’t worked, and forest management has proven equally fruitless (or nutless, to be precise). Powell and his lab have successfully inserted a gene into the tree’s genome that can break down the fungal toxin, and are spending a tense few years waiting for their saplings to mature in order to know if they may have created a way to save the species.
Becca Rosen takes a look at biotech’s fight to save the American Chestnut in a must-read at The Atlantic, check it out.
What I find so interesting is that the techniques being used to save this tree, and one day reintroduce it to the wild, are not that different from those that are used to create genetically modified crops. How does saving a dying species by inserting a gene differ from creating an herbicide-resistant soybean, or rice that produces extra vitamins? I have my opinions, but I want to know: What do you think?
Source: The Atlantic