American Chestnut Update: Big Funding News, Public Comment Needed, Seed Engraving, and a Podcast

(Above) Sergey Jivetin creates elaborate engravings on the shells of seeds, including a series carved on American chestnut seeds depicting The American Chestnut Foundation’s restoration efforts. One nut (enlarged) illustrates the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project’s insertion of the oxalate oxidase gene into the American chestnut genome. To see more of Sergey Jivetin’s work, check out his website, Furrow Seed Engraving Project.

Major Gift to SUNY-ESF Chestnut Restoration Project
The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) has announced a grant of $3.2 million over three years from the Templeton World Charity Foundation in support of efforts to restore the endangered American chestnut. This is SUNY-ESF’s largest-ever charitable gift.

The funding will support research and efforts to restore the economically and culturally significant tree species, billions of which were killed by a blight in the early twentieth century. ESF has genetically engineered a new strain of chestnut that includes a single gene from wheat, enabling the tree to detoxify the oxalic acid produced by the invasive fungus that causes the blight. According to the school, this is the first time scientists have sought approval for genetic engineering to restore a native tree species. Earlier this year, the research team submitted to federal agencies a petition that lays out the case for public distribution of the genetically engineered strain.

Among other things, the grant will support regulatory review; the establishment of orchards populated by the new strain; the production of transgenic trees for use in large-scale forest restoration; the creation of small educational plantings at public venues; the planting of a demonstration/research forest dedicated to public education and outreach; the development of ecosystem and agricultural restoration protocols; and public distribution of individual trees.

“The Templeton support will allow us to ‘kick-start’ the restoration of the magnificent American chestnut trees and help improve the health of the forest from which they were lost,” said William Powell, head of the ESF American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project. 

“This is truly a transformational gift,” said Dana Piwinski, senior director of major gifts in the ESF office of development. “It means that at this critical stage, with the project undergoing federal review, the researchers know they have the support they need to continue work with a full staff.”

NY-TACF Chapter President Allen Nichols with new shoots off of a small stump sprout from an original chestnut tree that was killed by the blight 100 years ago. Photo Courtesy Allen Nichols

Public Comment Period to Open 
In early November 2019, SUNY-ESF filed a Petition for Determination of Regulatory Status for the Blight Tolerant American Chestnut (Darling 58) with USDA-APHIS. The agency is now conducting a full review of the petition, an exhaustive 250-plus page document that demonstrates in compelling ways why the Darling 58 tree should be deregulated and released.

The application is not public yet, as it has to undergo a completeness review first, which is underway. After any revisions are suggested and made, the petition will be made public on the Federal Register, and that marks the start of a 60-day public comment period. [We will link to the public comment page here when it goes live.]

NY-TCAF Chapter President Allen Nichols explains. “To prepare for the public comment period, NY-TACF seeks your interest in this process by utilizing our vast network of citizen scientists, TACF members, chapter volunteers and donors to both TACF and ESF to urge approval by the USDA-APHIS. This is both to add scientific perspective as well as demonstrating public support for saving the tree from extinction and restoring the forests. We also hope many stakeholders in our mission will share compelling, personal stories about their own history with the American chestnut tree, adding sentiment and authenticity to the comment portfolio.”

According to Nichols, there is a range of actions that TACF chapters and members could take in support of SUNY-ESF’s petition. These could include:

–          Passing a resolution by your board in support of the petition;

–          Asking chapter members and volunteers to participate in the public comment process by adding their comments to the Federal Register;

–          Helping identify scientific and technical experts and partners that we could share the petition with and ask them to add their viewpoints to the public comment website; and

–          Asking individual directors and former directors to add their voices and viewpoints to the public comment forum.

“It’s important to note that the transgenic chestnut tree is NOT going to be patented by SUNY-ESF,” says Nichols. “Everyone can use it as they wish.” He explains that unlike a company producing medicine or farm crops, the American Chestnut Restoration Project at SUNY-ESF has not been funded by corporations looking to make a profit from their investment. For information on how to get involved with chestnut restoration in New York, please contact Nichols at fajknichols.75@gmail.com.

The Village Chestnut Tree Podcast
In The Village Chestnut Tree podcast (available on iTunes), Emmett Hoops discusses American chestnuts and what’s being done to save them.

A growing American elm in a laboratory in SUNY-ESF’s Marshall Hall. Photo Courtesy SUNY-ESF

American Elm Restoration Work Also Underway at SUNY 
SUNY-ESF is also working on an American elm that hopefully will be resistant to Dutch elm disease and elm yellows. An ESF Magazine article about the research and its head, Dr. Allison Oakes, can be seen here. She is using similar techniques and methods as were used to develop a blight-tolerant chestnut tree.

Related blog posts:

Beetle, Fungus, Fungus: Research Updates on EAB, DED, and Chestnut Blight

Chestnut Tree Restoration: Help by Planting Nuts for “Mother Trees”

Participate in the Reintroduction of the American Chestnut … by Simply Planting a Few Nuts

American Chestnut Program at SUNY ESF Featured at the Upcoming ReLeaf Conference

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