Recently ScienceDaily.com posted an article about American chestnut trees due to be planted in New York City. Researchers hope that these trees will be resistant to chestnut blight, an introduced fungal disease that pretty much wiped out mature specimens over the last 100 years.
When I lived in Buffalo, I was a member of the American Chestnut Foundation and every spring I helped with efforts to replant chestnuts in the hopes that resistant individuals might be found. The problem is that the disease doesn’t kill young trees: it can take many years to find out whether a particular tree is resistant or not.
Chestnut suckers from live roots of blight-killed tree. I saw these a lot in western NY forests in the 1990’s.
Part of the earlier research efforts involved crossing resistant European chestnut with American chestnut in hopes of creating resistant hybrids. The downside, of course, is that such offspring would not be “pure” American chestnuts. More importantly to many people, these hybrids might not produce the same quality of nuts.
The research mentioned in the Science Daily article involves creating transgenic plants: a wheat gene resistant to the fungus was inserted into the chestnut genome with the hopes that the resulting trees would be immune to blight. These trees are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
It’s worth noting that it’s this kind of work that has been branded as “Frankentree” research, which incites a lot of fear and hysteria. It’s what caused ecoterrorists to mistakenly firebomb the UW Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001 when I was faculty there. It’s what causes people to freak out about eating GMO foods.
So my question for you – does the fact that transgenic chestnut trees will be “on the loose” fill you with fear? Or does it make you hopeful that we’ve possibly found a way to overcome an introduced disease? (As I just noticed in reading this over before posting that I used some form of the word “hope” in nearly every paragraph. I guess it shows where I stand.)