Can breeding, biotech bring back the chestnut?

North America’s eastern forests used to have some 4 billion American chestnut trees: large, tall (up to 100 feet), fast-growing trees whose wood made excellent lumber for buildings; whose nuts fed billions of birds and mammals, including people (including Thoreau); whose tannins supplied America’s leather industry. Various sources have called it “the queen of the forest” and “the ideal tree.”

Then something happened.

Blight devastation

In the early 1900s, the nonnative chestnut blight fungus arrived, causing a fast, near-total die-off of mature American chestnuts. Less than 50 years later, the queen was dead, considered functionally extinct.

Today, small, shrub-like American chestnuts still grow in scattered places — sprouting from still-living roots, but the sprouts end up dying before they mature — and scientists continue working to try to bring the tree back.

Talk at Ohio State

One of those scientists is Jared Westbrook of the Asheville, North Carolina-based American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), and he’s scheduled to speak on Feb. 15 on Ohio State’s Columbus campus.

His talk, called “Restoration of American Chestnut: A Marriage of Breeding and Biotechnology,” is from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in 333 Kottman Hall, 2021 Coffey Road, in Columbus. It’s viewable, too, by video link in 203 Selby Hall at OARDC, 1680 Madison Ave., on CFAES’s Wooster campus. Admission at both locations is free.

For more information, contact Anna Conrad in CFAES’s Department of Plant Pathology at (Photo: American chestnut, 1913, by U.S. Forest Service via Wikimedia Commons.)

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