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SUNY ESF finds success with fungus resistant American chestnut trees

The State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse has figured out a way to grow an American chestnut tree that won’t die from a blight that’s virtually decimated the species over the last hundred years. It all comes down to genes.

American chestnut trees are an iconic species in American culture. Wildlife has relied on them, streets were named after them, and you can’t avoid mention of them in music during the holiday season.

But when a pathogen started attacking the trees a century ago, an estimated three to five billion of the large standing trees died. SUNY ESF has been looking for a way to bring those trees back for 25 years now.

Professor William Powell says they’ve hit on the answer, using genes that protect the trees from the deadly blight.

"It’s a gene from bread wheat, so people eat it all the time," Powell explained. "It encodes an enzyme that detoxifies an acid that’s made by the fungus that attacks the tree."

Powell says they’ve successfully planted some of the fungus resistant trees and they’re doing quite well. He says the idea is to eventually reintroduce them into the ecosystem.

“We’ve already started working a little bit with American elm, which was devastated by Dutch elm disease, and now there’s a second disease, elm yellows that’s a problem. Starting to look at that," Powell said. "And like I mentioned, ash trees and hemlock tress are being treated by the wooly adelgid, so there’s a lot of hemlock trees. So these techniques could be widely applied.”

Powell says he has high hopes this process can attack other tree killing pathogens.

“These are continually coming into our country, so we need to try and reverse this trend," Powell said. "And American chestnut could be one of the first that could actually reverse the trend of this loss of diversity. So we could increase the diversity of the forest.”

It will take a while to do that though. Because they are using genetic engineering, they have to go through a five year government approval process.  

“Instead of just waiting until the end of that process to get the trees out, we’re actually going to start producing trees and planting them on our research sites," Powell said. "So hopefully by the end of this review process we’ll have at least 10,000 trees that we can distribute to the public and restoration programs.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.