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Crop Biotech Update

Researchers Plan to Release Transgenic Chestnut to Save the Tree

September 5, 2018
Scientists from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) state their plans on asking approval from U.S. regulators about breeding transgenic chestnut trees with non-engineered trees to restore the species. These transgenic trees are highly regulated in the U.S. and would be the first GM tree to be released in the wild if the regulators approve of the group's plan.

American chestnut once dominated North American forests until a fungal infection called chestnut blight appeared in the 1900s and essentially killed the species. In 1990, tree geneticists William Powell and Charles Maynard of SUNY ESF started "taking the weapon away from the fungus" by inserting the wheat gene for oxalate oxidase or OxO through genetic engineering. OxO breaks down oxalic acid, which is released by the pathogens and is the compound that kills the trees. In 2014, the group released Darling 58, a transgenic chestnut with heritable blight resistance trait.

The plan received mixed reactions from its audience, with experts saying that the approval process would be long, cultural and spiritual aspects should also be considered, and the evolution of the fungus is at risk. The SUNY ESF group countered the last, as they said that their tree does not kill the fungus. By contrast, conventional chestnut breeder Jared Westbrook of the American Chestnut Foundation supported the idea, saying that the transgenic tree is better at deterring the disease compared with traditionally bred ones.

For more information, read the article in Science.