Sara Fern Fitzsimmons, a Pennsylvania State University researcher, in a chestnut field near Penfield, Pa., July 13.

MICHAEL WINES • New York Times,

Rivals race to bring back the iconic American chestnut

  • Article by: MICHAEL WINES New York Times
  • July 20, 2013 - 8:15 PM

– Capping decades of research, two groups of plant breeders and geneticists appear to have arrived independently within reach of the same arboreal holy grail: creating an American chestnut tree that can withstand the devastating fungus blight that wiped the trees out by the billions in the first half of the 20th century.

In rural Pennsylvania, 1,000 potentially blight-resistant chestnut seedlings are sprouting with thousands of other hardwoods planted in May by the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group in Asheville, N.C., dedicated to the tree’s restoration.

The seedlings, Chinese-American hybrids, are among 14,000 chestnut trees being set atop reclaimed Appalachian strip mines through the end of 2014.

At the same time, scientists at the State University of New York at Syracuse are readying new trials of a different chestnut — not a hybrid, but one that has been modified with a gene from wheat that enables it to produce a blight-fighting enzyme.

With U.S. Department of Agriculture approval, researchers hope to begin a field trial at a different reclaimed mine site as early as autumn.

Placing genetically modified chestnut trees in the wild would require federal approval; for now, the altered chestnuts can be raised only in orchards and other places where there is no potential for their pollen to fertilize other trees.

Success by either group would mark the first victory in a decades-long battle to restore the chestnut as an icon in U.S. forests and U.S. culture.

Perhaps 4 billion of the majestic trees dominated woodlands in the Eastern United States in the early 1900s, when the blight arrived in New York on a boat carrying Asian chestnut trees. Efforts to find a disease-resistant hybrid began in the 1930s, but virtually all of the original U.S. trees were dead by 1950.

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