The disagreement over genetically-modified organisms has shown up in an unexpected place: Efforts to resurrect the American chestnut tree, which was wiped out by blight last century.
The American Chestnut Foundation has spent years cross-breeding a few surviving American chestnut trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees, a smaller less elegant relative. The idea is to create a tree that looks like the American chestnut but has most or all of the Chinese vigor. I’ve written about their efforts in New Hampshire many times, such as when six of the trees were planted in Concord.
Last year researchers at the New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is attached to Syracuse University, said they were developing a genetically modified chestnut that could shrug of the blight. They’re looking for permission to test them in the wild. Here’s a Science magazine article about it.
This plan eventually got support from The American Chestnut Foundation, and that is causing something of a backlash. On Thursday, two board members of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter, including the chapter president, said they were quitting because of it.
“We are unwilling to lift a finger, donate a nickel or spend one minute of our time assisting the development of genetically engineered (GE) trees or using the American chestnut to promote biotechnology in forests as any kind of benefit to the environment,” their statement said.
The idea of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the wild creates fear of unintended consequences: What is the gene migrates to another species and does something unpleasant and unexpected? That’s not an unreasonable fear, although I’m afraid we’ve screwed up the environment so badly we’re going to have to accept the risk and start using GMO crops if we want to feed 10 billion people in a warming world. That’s not an argument for chestnut trees, however.
As a supporter of and a donor to the effort to produce a genetically modified tree, I wanted to address an issue or two raised by this post. (Just to clarify I am not in any involved with a biotech company or the genetic engineering industry in any way.)
Basically on top of the limitations of the hybrid approach in providing the desired amount of blight resistance so far, you also have the reality that the alternate back crossing method strategy still involves 1/16 of the genes being Chinese chestnut which in reality absolutely creates risks when introduced into the environment on a mass scale. By contrast by only adding one gene, the genetically modified American Chestnut is something like 99.999% plus pure American Chestnut.
In terms of the genes escaping to another species, that basically is not a real issue. The only wild native species in North America it can hybridize with are the Allegheny Chinquapin and the Ozark Chinquapin. Those involved with this work have already performed testing to make sure there are no issues if the trees do hybridize with a chestnut with that gene. Beyond that it just is not possible for the Chestnut to successfully pollinate other native trees in North America.
While it is theoretically possible for say what is known an agribacterium to happen to naturally transfer the gene to another species beyond that when infecting both, the same gene already exists in wheat, strawberries, and bananas, so the gene could have simply been transferred from them instead in the first place. In fact it would be possible for the American Chestnut to have naturally obtained this gene in that way, it would have presumably have taken millions of years and the American Chestnut would not actually have been around by then anymore unless we something to save it.
Basically with the reality that slow growing trees are under assault by all the invasive species we keep bringing over such as ash trees with the Emerald Ash Borer and a recent new beach bark disease for example, we need options to counter this unless we want to have forests with an increasingly small number of surviving tree species.
Let’s be clear on the science, at least. The genetically engineered American chestnut tree has multiple genes introduced, not one. Additionally, the process of genetically transforming the genome introduces all kinds of mutations that have unpredictable impacts.
Add to this the fact that American chestnut trees can live for hundreds of years, yet the GE chestnut has only been in development for less than 20–with only a few very short-term tests on potential risks–and there is no way to know what risks and impacts this genetically engineered tree will pose to pollinators, songbirds, wildlife or even human health.
It is irresponsible to release these GE American chestnuts into wild forests.
Anne Petermann, that is a potentially extremely deceptive claim as made. The grand total for the proposed tree specifically seeking regularly release is two genes, multiple tends to give people a very different picture, especially without more context. (This slide set does have that information among other sources.)
Note this is out of about 40,000 genes while the current back crossing technique still leaves basically 2,812 non-native genes in the tree being introduced into the wild.
The rest of your claim about mutations nonsense you have repeatedly claimed through your organization, but it simply does not reflect reality. They can also see exactly what they actually changed with their genetic engineering and have been breeding multiple generations to make sure no issues crop up there before regulatory approval will be potentially granted in the future for general release. The reality is that actual theoretical concerns such as risk to pollinators have already been specifically tested for at this point. A claim you need hundreds of years to actually test things is an appeal to fear and not actual science.
Of course another detail is if a group organization was instead trying to add new traits through mutation breeding where they deliberately create random mutations to try to add to useful traits to a plant by intentionally exposing them to radiation in mutation breeding, the people doing this would not have to seek regulatory approval at all before starting general release of this product into commercial use or the wild. It seems odd that your organization is not more concerned about an approach which has far more potential for unpredictable mutations being introduced and does not have the same level of regulatory scrutiny involving it.
Aaron,,, There are many more than 2,812 Chinese genes in the hybrid trees. Each hybrid tree that is 15/16 has approximately that many Chinese genes,,,, But those genes in each tree are different, and almost “all” the original Chinese genes are still in the hybrid breeding program. In fact recent genetic testing indicates that some of the most blight resistant hybrid trees have crossed with Chinese trees and a large % of Chinese genes.
Bravo, excellent argument 100% agree
We have screwed up the environment so bad that we better find some way to correct the damage we have done. American chestnut, American Elm, Ash and Canadian hemlock. What is next maple or oak.
Genetic engineering introduces far fewer mutations than most traditional breeding methods with fewer unintended changes and there is plenty of science to back this up. If folks fear unintended mutations and effects, than they should be supporters of genetic engineering.
The main problems with GMO organisms in agriculture are not the organisms themselves. They are the socioeconomic effects, and the use of chemicals like Roundup that have non-target effects on people, pollinators, etc.
Chestnut trees are not corn. Bayer/Monsanto is not going to be suing anyone for using patented chestnut seeds. The GMO blight-resistant chestnuts are not designed to be pesticide resistant, just pest resistant.
Gene modification is a tool. So is a chainsaw. Every chainsaw is not used for a massacre, although there is a slight risk. We try to minimize the risk. The same is true of gene modification. Given the alternatives, for chestnuts, the benefits far outweigh the risk.
Correct, and any problem with Chectnut can be solved with a chainsaw