The USDA Should Let People Plant Blight-Resistant American Chestnut Trees

Anti-biotech activists cite the precautionary principle to maintain chestnut tree-free forests.


The American chestnut was once the dominant hardwood species in Appalachian mountain forests, comprising as much as 40 percent of the overstory trees in the climax forests of the Eastern United States. Foresters used to quip that an enterprising squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia on the interlocking branches of chestnut trees. The fast-growing American chestnuts often reached five feet in diameter and 60–100 feet in height.

Then came the Asian chestnut blight in the early 20th century that killed over 3 billion American chestnuts basically causing the tree to become functionally extinct throughout its natural range. The blight fungus was probably brought to America on imported nursery stock of Chinese chestnuts. American trees had simply never evolved resistance to this parasite. The American chestnut is now almost entirely gone from the landscape except for a few stumps in the woods that still produce shoots that the blight kills before they reach 15 feet in height.

For more than 30 years, the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) has been engaged in a privately financed program in which its geneticists have been crossbreeding American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts. The goal is to produce an American chestnut tree that retains essentially only the blight resistance genes from the Chinese chestnut tree.

More recently, the ACF has been collaborating with researchers at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to use modern biotechnology to endow American chestnut trees with blight resistance. To that end, the researchers have added a gene from wheat that produces the enzyme oxalate oxidase that breaks down the oxalic acid the fungus uses to attack chestnut trees. It works; the added gene does indeed protect American chestnuts from the blight.

Now the ACF and ESF researchers are officially petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give their blight-resistant American chestnut "nonregulated status" which would allow the blight-tolerant bioengineered trees to be planted without restriction as part of restoration programs.

However, a coterie of anti-biotech activists organized as The Campaign to STOP GE Trees are opposing the petition to the USDA. To justify their opposition to blight-resistant genetically-engineered American chestnuts, the campaigners cite the precautionary principle. But the precautionary principle measures only risks and not benefits of new technologies and amounts to arguing that we should "never do anything for the first time," as I've previously argued. In this case, the activists assert that since researchers do not know absolutely all of the possible consequences of planting blight-resistant American chestnut trees, then none should be planted. Perplexingly, the activists ignore the glaring fact that we do know what the deleterious ecological and economic consequences of having no blight-resistant chestnut trees have been.

In fact, extensive research by the ACF and ESF finds no significant ecological effects from inserting the oxalate oxidase gene, apart from enhancing blight tolerance. The researchers point out that their blight-resistant "chestnuts retain 100 percent of their natural complement of genes; no native genes or alleles have been removed or replaced, and expression of nearby genes is not affected." In other words, except for the blight-resistant trait, their trees are, in all relevant respects, genetically identical to natural American chestnuts.

In addition, the researchers point out there are no negative human health issues since the oxalate oxidase gene is naturally present in many food crops and is non-allergenic. After all, people have been eating that enzyme in bread for millennia.

In their USDA petition, the researchers observe that if their blight-resistant American chestnuts are granted nonregulated status by the USDA, they will be made available for not-for-profit distribution to the public, and to groups including private, indigenous, state, and federal restoration programs. If the USDA regulators do grant their trees nonregulated status, they can then "be planted like wild-type or traditionally bred chestnuts to accomplish meaningful conservation and restoration of the American chestnut." Perhaps squirrels could once again travel from Maine to Georgia through the branches of restored chestnut forests by the end of this century.

Disclosures: I have occasionally made small contributions to the ACF in the past and will do so again soon. I have also made a public comment at the USDA in favor of granting nonregulated status to the blight-resistant chestnut trees. 

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  2. Pardon my ignorance, but could pro-GMO activists use gene drive or something similar to turn this gene into an inoculation, and hike the Appalachian Trail, inoculating the remnant chestnut tree shoots before they become infected? I mean ….. if gene drive can pass its genes on to wipe out mosquitoes or malaria …..

    And why doesn’t this fungus affect other trees? Why only American Chestnuts? That would seem to make the gene even less a danger, but I wouldn’t expect the anti-GMO crowd to care.

    1. I don’t think that’s how gene drive works. It basically means you can ensure a particular allele is always the one passed along, but it still requires an individual with the gene to be introduced, and then breed with the natural population

      I’m not even sure the natural population of chestnut trees is even reaching reproductive maturity, but if they are gene drive can certainly be used to ensure the beneficial gene passed on to any crossbred offspring

      1. The problem is glossed over. The innoculation would need to be delivered by an infectious, but non-lethal, vector. There are other means of introducing the genes into wild plants but they are more intensive and less conducive to hiking the Appalachian Trail.

        Moreover, as indicated, it’s not like the Appalachian Trail is lined with American Chestnut trees any longer. Even if the gene were successfully introduced, it’s not clear that the modified American Chestnuts would displace the other species of chestnuts (Asian, European, and Japanes) that are now much more common.

        1. None of which is to say that they shouldn’t be allowed to try, just that it would be a lot of effort to achieve the illusion of historical accuracy(?).

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    2. Just put masks on the trees to make them safe.

      1. Ok, I laughed. 😀

    3. The fungus is host-specific, as many parasites are. A gene drive generally introduces the new gene through the germ line. Thus, infecting the soma would not help, as there is no way to spread the gene into all the existing tissues. However, there is a virus that infects the chestnut blight. So you could go around spreading this virus in an effort to weaken the blight in existing American chestnut trees in Appalachia.

      1. A gene drive generally introduces the new gene through the germ line. Thus, infecting the soma would not help, as there is no way to spread the gene into all the existing tissues.

        Slight disagreement. I would obviously defer to more specific or dedicated data/research, but plants somatic/germ line seggregation occurs, or is generally believed to occur, more frequently and/or much later in life cycle development and the vectors by which the genes are transmitted don’t generally distinguish somatic vs. germ line cells the way they do in higher organisms. Human limbs don’t generally develop testes or ovaries, plant limbs do continuously. Human respiratory viruses don’t generally infect human reproductive tissue, plant viruses frequently infect all manner of cell lines. Many, many of today’s modified plants started by the transfection/transduction of somatic cell lines directly and growing whole organisms from there. A mechanism, save ESCs, entirely absent from most animals.

        However, at the grove/forest level, the distinction is a bit moot. Even if you absolutely and unequivocally modifed every shoot on a stump, it doesn’t matter if the next set of germ line cells is separated by several miles of competing cell lines.

  3. The precautionary principle is an idiotic argument. Because risk is greater than zero, don’t do it. Because your mind can create a scenario where planting a tree invites an alien race in and destroys Earth, is not a reason to not plant a tree. The principle applies to literally every potential choice. Imagine if they applied it in 1400 BC? You would not have gotten beyond the pagan Gods. Maybe that would have been ok, bad example.

    1. The precautionary principle is also dumb because it should apply both ways. By the precautionary principle we should avoid inaction unless we can prove that inaction will cause no harm. Can these activists prove that letting all American chestnuts die off will have no deleterious effects? If not, then we must take action to save the species!

    2. “Because risk is greater than zero, don’t do it.”

      Except there is no such thing as zero risk. Even “do nothing” has non-zero risk.

  4. Love Chesnuts. when I was a child on my way home from school i would gather chestnuts from a tree on the route. Turned out both my mother and grandmother had picked from that same tree when they were kids walking home from the same school. Sadly a few years ago the tree finally died.

    1. It was probably a Chinese chestnut, but yeah, chestnuts are awesome. Chestnuts were a staple used by the east coast Native Americans and there are theories that the chestnut trees were actively planted and cultivated by the Native Americans and that the widespread presence of the chestnut trees was not entirely natural. Chestnuts also used to be a staple in Europe. Before the Columbian Exchange brought tomatoes and corn to Italy, chestnuts were used in many recipes.

  5. VERY IMPORTANT details were left out of this article, Ron! WHERE are the test plots of these trees located, how heavily are they guarded, and how easily might we steal a few nuts to plant for ourselves? Alternately, where do I meet a shady character who sells these nuts out of his trench-coat pockets? Is there a wide-open market niche for ME to be the guy with the nuts in my trench-coat pockets, and where do I buy the nuts to “seed” my business?

    Most of all, how many decades in jail if I get caught selling harmless nuts? Or is there a death penalty? Oh, and, what percentage of our jailbirds are in jail these days, for this kind of “offense”, or even more trivial?

    1. FYI…

      New genetically engineered American chestnut will help restore the decimated, iconic tree
      Feb. 27, 2017
      By William Powell

      How ridiculous will this kind fo crap get, before some researcher, for the common good, says, “The hell with my career, I am falling on my sword, metaphorically, and RELEASING the so-calledKraken?”

      1. Fuck off and die Hihn.

        1. Wow, what clever wit! Did your mommy help you write that?

        2. Didn’t that already happen?

        3. Squirlsy isn’t the Hihnbot. Way too coherent for that.

      2. Maybe it has already happened.

  6. This is great reporting. I’m glad to hear people are trying to save the American Chestnut. Hopefully someone can browbeat the USDA into making the right decision.

    American Ash species are currently under attack by the emerald ash borer and last I heard the USDA is supporting efforts to control the borer with a combination of native and introduced parasites. A GMO solution like the one developed for the chestnut is certainly less risky than introducing foreign species, but I’m not surprised that irrational fear of GMOs is winning the day…

  7. Why not just make the USDA force everyone to plant GMO modified trees Ron? That’s your position on vaccines for a virus with 1/10 of 1% fatality rate. Let your authoritarian bootlicking flag fly you pathetic Marxist cunt.

    1. Fuck off and die Hihn.

      1. I love it when you out your socks, Hihn. Lmfao. Hard to keep track when the meds aren’t controlling your senility.

          1. Bwa ha ha!

            From the obituary page: “To Plant Memorial Trees in memory, please visit our Sympathy Store.”

            How appropriate! 😀

        1. Yusuf Islam believes in zombies! Run, Yusuf Islam, run! Or else the Hihn-zombie might eat your brains!

          I would try to explain to Yusuf Islam that Yusuf Islam’s worries are TOTALLY unfounded, since zombies do NOT know how to use microscopes to find brains! But even if zombies DID know how to use microscopes, a 3-or-4-neurons brain would NOT contain enough calories to justify the effort!

          But since Yusuf Islam’s brain is SOOOO small, to the vanishing point, explaining all these details would be a waste of time!

          1. Nah, you clearly faked your own death so that you could keep coming here and posting in your weirdly annoying squirrel persona. Name-change-griefer is onto you, Hihn.

            1. We squirrels LOVE us some nuts!!! That’s why Yusuf Islam – Mary – Tulpa – Satan – “.” – Mary’s Period – etc. gets us all excited (but NOT delighted)!

  8. Seems to me to be a no brainer. The traditional back cross method can work but will ultimately yield a hybrid, neither an American Chestnut nor a Chinese Chestnut. After 30 years of crossing and backcrossing, the ACF’s blight-resistant hybrids still contain many genes from the Chinese chestnut. The trees neither look nor grow like an American chestnut. The transgenic tree on the other hand is quite specific in its modification. So what is the problem?
    Most GMO opposition can be tied to economics and corporate antagonism. GMO is perceived to spread corporate-controlled, industrial agriculture for seemingly unnecessary reasons that are pretty easy to argue against, or at least not root for… The genetically engineered chestnut, on the other hand, has none of those liabilities. Who profits other than everyone? Rehabilitation of an ecosystem not good enough for the anti-GMO’ers? Sure, as a wood tree, the Chestnut is likely to be harvested at some distant point in the future. And, so what. I owned an old home where the floors and trim work were all chestnut. A structurally stable, water resistant and durable wood. Beautiful, too. But first harvest will be decades if not a century away. None of us will see it but lets get started.

    1. I disagree only with you statement that GMO opposition is rooted in economics. While that certainly plays a part, much of the opposition is sheer anti-scientific fearmongering rooted in ignorance and illogic.

      1. Agreed, yes, but add to that, a HUGE strain of cultural narcissism, of cultural self-righteousness! You with your western “science” don’t know ANYTHING about what we so-called “primitive” nature-worshippers know!

        To see an example of that, check out the below…
        In 2001, Jacob Ogebe, a field officer for the Carter Center Guinea Worm Eradication Program, was trying to track down every pond in the area surrounding Ogi. He treated each with Abate, a mild pesticide that left the water potable, but killed the microscopic fleas that carry Guinea worm.

        Study up on the history of a horrible human disease, which was known as the Guinea Worm. Retired USA President Jimmy Carter was a leader for the Carter Center Guinea Worm Eradication Program. This program sent out field officer Jacob Ogebe, to track down every pond in an area surrounding Ogi, in Nigeria, where the worms were inflicting horrible suffering. Mr. Ogebe would apply a harmless pesticide called ‘Abate’, which would kill the microscopic fleas that carry Guinea worm, while still keeping the water potable, or safe for humans to drink.
        However, the natives HID from Mr. Ogebe, the existence of a certain disease-infested ‘sacred pond’! The natives wouldn’t trust the medical and biological sciences, and technology, of western cultures! If I may speak frankly here, what we sometimes have is a certain cultural narcissism, or sense of superiority. You, the others, the outsiders, may have better things in certain cases that would help us to eliminate our senseless suffering. But we’ll stubbornly cling to our old ways of senseless suffering, because our special ways in our special culture are somehow, ineffably superior! So go away with your solutions to our senseless suffering!
        Only the local intervention of a respected former Nigerian leader, General Yakubu Gowon, and some local leaders, persuaded the locals to set aside their ideas about how sacred the unpolluted-by-western-science waters of this pond were, and allow ‘Abate’ to be applied, that senseless suffering could be eliminated. Strange, but true!

        “Science”, FUCK OFF!!! WE the smugly superior NON-science believers, are ABOVE all that “data-driven” nonsense, and LOVE us some suffering! Suffering is GOOD for us all! Now let’s all suffer… ‘Cause I said so!

  9. The Campaign to STOP GE Trees is probably afraid that someone, somewhere, might eventually possibly make a dollar from a Chestnut tree.

  10. Incidentally the USDA decision could be impacted by people submitting their own public comments, and American Chestnut Foundation is encouraging people supporting approval to submit their own comments to the USDA, and is providing a few tips on doing so at their own website.

  11. Then came the Asian chestnut blight in the early 20th century that killed over 3 billion American chestnuts

    Because they didn’t wear masks.

    1. They wouldn’t have needed to wear masks if they’d just stayed 6 ft. apart when indoors.

  12. The goal is to produce an American chestnut tree that retains essentially only the blight resistance genes from the Chinese chestnut tree.

    But that’s not what you’ll have. The old species is gone. If you want a new one, fine, but it won’t be the old one.

    1. It’s also a bit of a false, almost religious/supremacist, notion. The species (Chinkapin, Asian, Japanese, European, and American) of Chestnut trees all interbreed. So it’s not like there are no longer chestnuts all over the Western forests. It’s that they are largely one of the other varieties or a hybrid of them. Even if you revived the American Chestnut, unless you proceed to wipe out the existing species, it will just get subsumed into the broader Chestnut population.

      1. can we still roast them over an open fire?

    2. That’s not the definition of “species”.

      Granted, there are several competing definitions for the concept but none are even close to what you are alleging.

    3. I don’t believe this is accurate. From the article:

      > In other words, except for the blight-resistant trait, their trees are, in all relevant respects, genetically identical to natural American chestnuts.

  13. Now the ACF and ESF researchers are officially petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give their blight-resistant American chestnut “nonregulated status” which would allow the blight-tolerant bioengineered trees to be planted without restriction as part of restoration programs.

    Is this an example of “everything not expressly permitted is forbidden” or did some far-sighted evil fucker at the USDA realize they might try bringing back the American Chestnut and proactively move to head this specific shit off?

    1. Although I must say, kudos on the Orwellian concept of having a regulatory classification of “non-regulated”. Do you have to get the paperwork stamped in triplicate to declare your product officially “regulation-free”?

    2. Not sure the USDA is the big(gest) evil here. Seems like a good idea that somebody is in charge of making sure people don’t just plant whatever the hell they want on public lands. Agreed on tragedy of the commons/best solution is to get the USDA out but, barring that, there is or could be national defense considerations.

      1. The Chinese will steal our engineered nuts, and create a “nut gap” with the USA?

        I find that to be totally beyond belief! We in the USA have oodles, kaboodles, and bazillions of MORE nuts than the Chi-coms can EVER even START to THINK ABOUT shaking a stick at!

        Need evidence of that? Just read the comments on these pages right here! (Butt I must add that, as a SQRLSY One, I DOOO love my nuts!)

        1. The Chinese will steal our engineered nuts, and create a “nut gap” with the USA?

          Yeah. Nothing bad ever came out of China and shut down half the economy and gave regional dictators free rein to rend Constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

        2. I’m pretty sure that your presence alone guarantees we’ll always be ahead of China in terms of nuts… 😉

  14. Kudos to Ron – Ecomodernist Conservation is a Good Idea, and countering the Chinese Blight with the chestnut gene that evolved to suppress it is a stroke of molecular genius. It could reset the base of the food chain in many forests

    Every tribal council in the New World should get on the bandwagon. Refusing to rid the Americas of this Old World blight is insane as the Antivaxxers embrace of Old World pestilences like measles and smallpox.

  15. It should be noted that anti GMO campaigners are far left wingers who supported Bernie Sanders, and are now backing Biden.

    They’ll never support libertarians, Trump, or other Republicans.

  16. Nice article, Such a interesting article.

  17. Jeesh, Do I have to think of everything? Just put a tax on the China Chestnuts and the problem will go away. No different than the other China problems, really.

  18. OK, but missing from this article is how restrictive the regulations are for trees in regulated status. It’s hard to get much interest in this if the regs amount to just filling out some routine forms to plant trees, but another thing if it’s the sort of thing where the regs make it so hard that it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s while to plant the trees legally, resulting in a black market for chestnut trees.

    1. Whatever happened to Johnny Chestnutseed?

    2. It should be noted that the USDA doesn’t regulate, e.g., home-grown marijuana, milk, beef, alcohol, etc.

      You are free to engineer your weed or your chestnuts on your property as you see fit. When your engineering fucks up your neighbors’ crops, makes its way onto federal land, or into the food supply that the USDA gets involved.

      It’s not entirely clear that they aren’t just filling out the paperwork anyone would have to fill out if they wanted to replace a couple million trees on public land, GMOs or not.

  19. So bird flu h1n1 struggle sessions Wuhan virus concentration camps and chessnuts, can we just agree china is why we cant have nice things.

  20. Isn’t this how the blight becomes resistant to antibiotics though, and forces us to travel to the fifth dimension to find another planet, and turns the Yankees into a semi-pro team? Murph?


    1. exactly., you don’t want them eating some GMO chestnut and turning into some hiker eating mutant menace.

  22. Let’s hope this brings back the American Chestnut Tree. As an amateur woodworker it is beautiful wood. I did restore some old woodwork made of this wood. In a generation or two it could populate the forests and a portion once again be used for beautiful furniture.

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