Biotech Updates

Genetic Engineering Helps American Chestnut Trees to Rise Again

May 15, 2013

After years of suffering from blight caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, American chestnut trees may rise again through genetic engineering. Dr. William Powell of the State University of New York and Scott Merkle of the University of Georgia started the search for genetic protection for the American chestnut tree in 1990. Dr. Powell knew that most of the chestnut blight symptoms are caused by the oxalic acid that C. parasitica generates as it grows. He also knew that wheat has an enzyme called oxalate oxidase, which detoxifies oxalic acid. Together with his team, he transferred the gene that encodes oxalate oxidase from wheat to chestnut, and they found that oxalate oxidase can indeed enhance blight-resistance.

This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supervised the planting of three experimental patches, a project organized by the Forest Health Iniative (FHI). If the trial works, the FHI will request permission to plant transgenic chestnut trees in the wild to re-establish the species in America's woodlands. The team hopes to use the model for future projects to re-establish threathened species such as the elm tree, ash tree, and a fir tree known as the eastern hemlock.

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