The August 19 Wall Street Journal profiled the state of a major breakthrough in bringing back the blight-devastated American Chestnut: “Chestnut trees whose lives began as smudges on a Petri dish are growing in upstate New York, their genes infused with a wheat DNA that appears to kill the fungus that attacks the tree’s trunk and limbs.” So far—reports WSJ—these genetically engineered trees haven’t succumbed to the blight, even when the researchers infect them with it, and the oldest saplings are now six years old, rendering their first crop of nuts.
This project—undertaken by the New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse—is independent of other attempts, perhaps better known, to create a blight-free hybrid by conventional interbreeding with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, which produces the edible nut with which most people today are familiar but does not produce commercially valued timber.
The article is full of optimistic statements from some pretty impressive authorities, and those who have been skeptical of triumphalist press releases about reintroducing the chestnut over the past generation may find this account more convincing. What is open to speculation is the position of the interest groups that oppose genetic engineering on principle. Will introducing a Frankenchestnut up and down the Appalachian range bring out the anti-GE crowd with the same force as genetically engineered pine and eucalyptus do?