Should chestnut be revived with genetic engineering?

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Recent developments involving genetic engineering in the revival of nearly extinct chestnut trees in the U.S. have caused some dissention in the ranks.

The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) began experimenting with biotechnology in 1990, one of many efforts the organization used to restore the trees. “We are using all approaches to safely restore the American chestnut tree and reintroduce it. These approaches include traditional breeding methods, modern genetic transformation techniques, and biocontrol that would reduce the virulence of the chestnut blight fungus,” says Jules Smith, the foundation’s media and communications manager.

Smith highlights recent progress due to efforts made at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

“Researchers at SUNY-ESF are using a wheat gene that is inserted into the tree and it’s showing promise. They have been doing and are continuing to do a great deal of testing to be sure that if and when the tree is introduced it will be safe to the environment and ecosystem,” says Smith.

But two board members of the foundation’s Massachusetts/Rhode Island Chapter, president Lois Breault-Melican and her husband Denis Melican, have resigned in protest. Through the Global Justice Ecology Project, the couple issued a public statement that they are opposed to assisting in the development of genetically engineered trees and of using the American chestnut to promote biotechnology in forests. They are concerned that if deregulated by the USDA, the genetically engineered American chestnut would be the first genetically modified organism allowed to be planted in the wild with the intent to reproduce itself. They say there are no long-term studies of the impacts this would have on forests, wildlife, pollinators or human health.

“There is just no reason for taking the risks involved with genetically engineering the American chestnut. The local TACF chapters have been working for years and having great success developing blight resistant American chestnut trees using backcross breeding,” says Melican.

The couple say they have been aware of TACF’s biotechnology experimentation over the course of their 16-year membership. However, what prompted their protests was earlier this year when scientists began canvassing them on their interests in donating pollen for diversity, doing a germplasm conservation orchard and planting biotech sprouts and shrubs in their state with pure American trees.

“We regret resigning, but we think they’re making a mistake. We want to see chestnut brought back with small town partnerships using backcross breeding instead of turning it over to giant corporations and legitimize using forests for these problems. Our way is no risk. We don’t think it’s good for people and don’t want to be involved,” says Breault-Melican. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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