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SUNY ESF nearing completion of blight-resistant American chestnut trees

Ellen Abbott
The American Chestnut was nearly eradicated by blight in the last century. But SUNY ESF researchers are nearly ready to bring back a blight resistant American chestnut tree

Scientists at SUNY ESF have been trying to bring back the American chestnut tree for decades.  Three to four billion of the trees were destroyed by blight in the first half of the 20th century, but researchers are now getting close to bringing back an American chestnut resistant to blight.

ESF professor William Powell said 1 in 4 trees in eastern forests were American chestnuts before blight destroyed them. He has been working since the 1980s to genetically engineer a tree that would survive blight. All that work is nearing an end with scientists going through a final regulatory review process right now.

When that is done, most likely next within the next year, chestnut trees can be planted. Powell said they are ready for that, with thousands of seedlings already in the ground in upstate New York.

“When we finally get approval, we’re not going to be saying, oh, now we got to start from ground zero, and say OK, now we got to start producing trees,” Powell said. “We want to actually have some trees that people can take. And they’ll be trees that are either 1-year-old or 2-year-old, maybe even 3-year-old trees.”

Powell expects those trees can be planted all along the Eastern U.S., including in central New York.

"This will probably be one of the first areas, because our original trees came from central New York that we worked with, so they’re adapted here," said Powell. "And as we move further away, we’ll want to outcross to local trees whether it’s further north or a lot further south." 

Beyond bringing back an iconic American tree, Powell said the process of genetic engineering in plants that brought back this tree can be applied to others, like the elm or the ash, that have died off due to blight or insects.

“This can be a model of a new tool that we can use to try to rescue some of these trees before we lost them completely,” Powell said.

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.