One hundred years ago, an average American Chestnut tree would’ve grown to 100 feet tall but it’s being killed by cankers that encircle the tree and kill it. The chestnut blight, first discovered in 1904, has killed over 4 billion chestnut trees.
Dr. William Powell, of SUNY ESF said, “This is a culture of Cryphonectria parasitica. It’s the fungus that causes chestnut blight. It’s the fungus that was brought in from Asia and is wiping out the American Chestnut tree.”
Dr. Powell believes they’re closing in on a blight-resistant chestnut tree using a gene derived from wheat that gives the tree a defense against the blight. Through a microscope, you’re looking at transgenic somatic embryos.
“Everything that you’re looking at there is made up of transgenic cells and every single cell in that clump has the potential to grow into a whole tree.”
Charles Maynard, of SUNY ESF said, “In this lab we’re responsible for getting from a little tiny embryo in a petri dish, a little green embryo, into a whole plant ready to go out into a field.
The somatic embryos are planted in a JELL-O, like medium designed to promote growth. As they become baby chestnut trees, shoots are harvested and re-planted in the medium until roots develop. When the roots are big enough then they’re transplanted from the medium into soil and put into a special growing room.
It takes about a year and a half from creation of the transgenic embryo to a seedling planted outdoors. New test plots include the New York Botanical Garden.
That’s a stone’s throw, literally right across the street from where the blight was discovered in 1904. It’s a great full- circle effect. It’s very exciting to us.
Dr. Powell said, “Once we have a resistant tree we’ll start a major restoration program. It’ll take time maybe over 100 years to get it really established throughout its natural range but we have to start somewhere and that’s where we are right now, at the beginning.”