Bringing back the “king” of American forests

The American chestnut used to be one of the most common trees in North American hardwood forests, providing enormous crops of nuts that supported birds and other wildlife, and a source of robust, rot-resistant lumber for human use. But American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by the introduction of a virulent chestnut blight from Asia.

But now, after years of selective breeding and some careful genetic engineering, biologists at the State University of New York and the American Chestnut Foundation have produced blight-resistant chestnuts and they’re getting ready to start restoring the population with a crowd-funding campaign. If American chestnuts couldn’t evolve to cope with blight on their own, they may be one of the first species to get an evolutionary helping hand from humans.

2 comments on “Bringing back the “king” of American forests

  1. This is a great plan, but the last sentence is a bit overblown. ALL our agricultural crops and domesticated animals have gotten an evolutionary “helping hand” from humans, in some cases for over ten thousand years.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      Well, sure, we’ve done a lot of genetic engineering/selection of crops and livestock. But, per the earlier post I linked to, this is a case where a wild species lacked the genetic variation to respond to a strong selective agent (blight), and humans are engineering in that variation. I suppose you could argue that, after this intervention, American chestnuts will be an effectively domesticated population, at least for the foreseeable future, but I really think it’s a qualitatively different intervention than (say) selecting for maize yield or transporting chickens across the globe—neither of those were in any danger of extinction, so far as I know, when we started “helping” them.

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