The American Chestnut once ranged widely throughout the forests of the eastern US and was an important source of food for people and wildlife, but in the first half of the 20th Century most of these trees were killed off by a fungal pathogen introduced from Asia. Scientists at SUNY Syracuse are now attempting to genetically engineer the American chestnut to resist this deadly fungus.
But many American chestnuts still exist throughout eastern forests. Stumps from dead trees have resprouted and some are old enough to produce chestnuts. Active work by other scientists is being undertaken to use these chestnuts to breed blight resistant wild American chestnuts—not engineered facsimiles. The scientists developing the Genetically Engineered (GE) chestnuts, however, argue that this is the only way we can restore the glory of the American chestnut to the eastern forests.
This plan is inherently dangerous—to forests, communities and wildlife. Science has shown that forcing foreign genes into an organism’s genome causes damage and mutations. This, in turn, causes the engineered organism to do highly unpredictable things that have unanticipated consequences.
Are the efforts to bring back the American Chestnut focused on restoration, or is the prospect of making big money the real motivation?