De-Extinction and the Return of the American Chestnut

American Chestnut // Illustration via U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

I spent the summer of 2000 in the woods of western North Carolina. Northern parulas  sang outside of our cabin, presciently named “Ponderosa.” It rained a lot. In addition to leading boy scouts on 20 mile hikes and down the Little Tennessee river in canoes, and rafting on the Nantahala, I got to know a few locals. The mystique of Appalachia still calls to me from that time and from growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

One of the coals that stokes the fire of that miraculous place (nearly 500 native species of trees in the state of North Carolina) is a brief visit to an old barn. Its loft, an ancient goldmine. A remnant of a former time. Stacks of straight grain, rot resistant, American chestnut. 

That’s the closest I’ve ever come to sidling up to this functionally extinct tree, that once filled the eastern forests from Georgia to Maine. I may have seen an Allegheny chinkapin, (same genus as American chestnut, Castanea), at some point, but I can’t be sure of it. Today there are at least three different efforts to bring back this mast-producing hardwood. Mast is a term that means the fruit of forest trees or shrubs. 

A dying chestnut tree photographed in 1916 in North Spencer, New York. (Cornell University)

The three efforts are the: 1) cross-breeding effort; 2) the genetic modification effort; and 3) the hunt down the last few mature resistant trees and collect their seeds effort. This third effort often gets left out of the reporting. I assume this is because it has the least funding and involves the least amount of science wizardry.

This species very well may be the first de-extinction that I am aware of. If government approval moves forward we could see action taken beyond trials to releasing hybrid and genetically modified chestnuts into the wild this year. If you are as fascinated by this project as I am you will find some good fodder below.

A recent article regarding the “ great nut race ,” (Washington Post, 2019). The two big players in the race are the American Chestnut Foundation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Video talk by SUNY ESF professor Dr. William Powell on the hybridization  chestnut restoration effort, one of several projects highlighted in a Tedx De-extinction conference held in 2013.

Apparently no GMO effort is immune from association with Monsanto

My favorite of the three is the least funded and most conservative effort. As in let’s get out there and find disease resistant trees, collect their seeds, and grow them. I just ordered a handful of seeds from ArcheWild at $5 a pop. I will be leaning on my knowledgeable friends from the local university arboretum and anyone else I can talk into helping with this project. I’d really love to have some bonsai American chestnuts. I am pretty sure they can’t handle the winters up here. 

I think it goes without saying that bringing a species back comes with many exciting and troubling considerations. The efforts of ArcheWild and others working to collect and grow/breed disease resistant American chestnut trees from existing blight resistant trees seems to me the best Christian response. The four Cs: concern for creation and cautious consideration dictate that we should: 1) err on the conservative side by not ignorantly introducing new genes into the eastern forests; 2) utilize a solution that pre-exists our high-tech efforts. This response is humble and patient, working with Creation and its design principles.