The potential unintended consequences of spreading genetically engineered American Chestnut trees was the topic of an op-ed column by Marlene A. Condon published in the Crozete Gazette:
“Transgenic” organisms (those with the genes of a totally different species within them) could possibly alter the genetic blueprint for others of their kind in the wild, with unknown consequences. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back in.
People tend to dismiss such concerns when they want something, and people want to bring back the American Chestnut. Researchers from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry have engineered highly blight-resistant saplings by splicing a gene from wheat into the tree’s genome. Wheat and other grasses carry a naturally occurring gene that produces an enzyme that lessens the effects of oxalic acid, the main “weapon” of the fungus infecting our native chestnut.
If approved by the government, the GMO American chestnut tree would be the first ever self-replicating GMO to be released directly into the wild for the purpose of contaminating as many wild relatives as possible. It would be one giant uncontrolled experiment and set a dangerous precedent for the future our forests and natural environment.
It is clear that some researchers are eager and confident in the outcome of their experiment, but the interests of science alone cannot be enough to take an irreversible action that involves the world’s first release of a self-replicating genetically modified organism, the long-term risks of which are completely unknown. History has shown us that just because science can do something does not always mean it should. Our scientific and technological choices must be informed by broader ethical, health and environmental considerations.
From Condon’s column:
The reality is that, in the 21st century and beyond, a world teeming with the imposing American Chestnut would be a world all out of whack and upsetting to people. Although it’s easy to fall for the allure of feeling virtuous by trying to recreate the natural world as it once was, that is an impossibility. You should be careful what you wish for, at least if you haven’t first considered the consequences.