Rebuilding America’s Forests

Looking at pictures of America from a century ago, even a few decades ago, you will see a towering chestnut blanket covering most of the East Coast, chestnut trees that dominated the landscape from George to Maine. It is tragic to think that there were once 4 billion chestnut trees on the eastern seaboard. That number is now a paltry 400 million thanks to a fungus that infected all of them. Thankfully, there are many who wish to see America’s body populated by green tattoos once again, people like William Powell, codirector of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project.

Powell believes we can restore all those chestnut trees. Katharine Gammon of Take Part writes, “He began working to bring back the chestnut 26 years ago. He and project codirector Charles Maynard combed through more than 30 plant genes to find one that would help stop the blight. They settled on a gene from a cultivated wheat species that produces an enzyme called oxalate oxidase. […] The enzyme detoxifies the oxalate that the fungus uses to form deadly cankers on chestnut stems.”

That might seem a little too science-y to a lot of people, but basically what Powell hopes to accomplish to do is to counteract the fungus but do so in a way that doesn’t put too much pressure on the pathogen. Powell does not want to remove the fungus, but rather change its essence, because at this point, it is also important for the fungus to survive as well.

While this is very exciting news, we must keep in mind that this is an experiment and although hopes are high that the project will grow up to 10,000 seedlings, it is important to temper enthusiasm, but who knows? If the restoration project reaches its goals, we could be seeing a completely new America, one that suspiciously looks a lot like the old one.