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Genetically Enhanced Trees May Save the American Chestnut PDF พิมพ์
เขียนโดย admin   
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Tim Latshaw, Observer (NY), June 18, 2010 http://www.observertoday.com/page/content.detail/id/541495.html?nav=5047

 
For nearly 20 years, different crossbreeds of the American chestnut have been planted along this stretch of backroad, hoping that new variations can stand up to a blight that has been killing off and stunting this once tall and widespread tree for more than a century. Some continue to live, others die, but all eventually contract the blight.

On a small hill above this orchard, however, in a fenced off area, a new hope is starting to take root; one that has science delving straight into the genes of the plants themselves.

Volunteers and members of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) met Thursday to plant the first round of test transgenic trees at the site. Retired State Senator Mary Lou Rath, a longtime supporter of the project, had the honor of setting the very first tree at the plot.

"There was never a problem getting the funding for the American chestnut tree," Rath said. "The Legislature always agreed on that."

The first sapling was named "Darling 5" after the Darling family. The late Herbert Darling, Sr. donated most of the Zoar Valley area to the state. His son, Herbert Darling, Jr., would go on to help found the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and serve for some time as president of the overall organization.

Darling was on hand at the planting, as was current ACF President Bryan Burhans, who traveled up from the organization's headquarters in North Carolina. Mature American chestnut trees were once prominent throughout much of the Eastern United States before the blight - a fungus that almost literally chokes the trees - was introduced to the country on Asian chestnuts. Now 16 state chapters of the ACF are represented where American chestnuts have dramatically dwindled.

"This represents something that has been missing for over 100 years in New York," Burhans said of the potential success of the testing. "The opportunity to bring something back into the ecosystem - something that's going to benefit wildlife, it will benefit society, it will benefit the private landowner - it has some huge benefits that we're going to involve."

The New York chapter of the ACF is currently the only to conduct transgenic testing - all others only using a traditional and intricate crossbreeding method. The transgenic project in New York has been under the care of Drs. Charles Maynard and William Powell from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at SUNY Syracuse.

According to Dr. Powell, work on the genetic aspect of the project began about 20 years ago as well, but a lot of research had to be performed to begin the real work.

"They didn't have methods to transform chestnuts when we started," he said. "... I liken it to you have to build your boat before you can go fishing. You have to get the method in place and make sure it works and everything, and then you can start testing different genes."

Dr. Powell said the genetic makeup of an American chestnut is simpler in many ways than that of a human, but the full DNA sequence of the tree is larger. One of the genetic modifications currently undergoing testing incorporates a gene from wheat that may neutralize the acid produced by the blight. Future plantings may introduce American chestnuts that contain genes from Chinese chestnuts, who are much more resistant to the fungus.

Six "events," or different transgenic varieties are currently planted on the 1.4-acre property. Among them are "control" groups of pure American chestnuts, Chinese chestnuts and various hybrids. Additional sites will be established to determine what factors location has on the viability of the alterations, as well.

According to Dr. Powell, if a successful transgenic tree is found, it will go through a deregulation process with the state before it can be introduced to the public. They are currently prohibited from public access, explaining the state-mandated fencing around the area.

The saplings are visible through the fencing, however, and earlier plantings remain unrestricted. There will be plenty of expectant eyes on the young trees as they begin to grow. The blight on the previous test trees is expected to carry easily over to the new samples, upon which their wherewithal over time can be evaluated. It can be an agonizingly long process, but one that carries a great reward for those who have invested in it.

"So many private dollars went into this project," Burhans said of the many donors and volunteers engaged in the Zoar Valley and similar projects. "They have not just relied on a free handout; they've worked their tails off to get to this point."

"It has been coined as the single biggest ecological disaster that we've had," Burhans added, "but what's exciting about the return of the chestnut is it also represents probably the single biggest ecological success story over many generations."

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