The following is an excerpt in the Portland (ME) PressHerald highlighting research into genetically modified chestnut trees that could help save the species.
Four billion American chestnut trees once grew in the eastern forest, from Maine to Mississippi, according to Jared Westbrook, director of science at the American Chestnut Foundation based in Asheville, North Carolina. One out of four trees in Appalachia was a chestnut. They were so abundant that the Spanish explorer DeSoto wrote during his 1540 expedition: “Where there be mountains, there be chestnuts.”
The American chestnut was a keystone species, meaning many animals – including turkeys, bears, raccoon, deer and squirrels – relied on them for food. Unlike oaks, which shed their acorns in boom-and-bust cycles, chestnut trees are consistent providers. In autumn, the chestnut burrs on the forest floor could be a foot deep.
People also relied on the tree, gathering nuts to sell; to fatten livestock; and to make flour, ice cream and beer. They roasted the nuts, candied them and stored them for winter. Chestnut wood, which is incredibly rot resistant, was used in barns, homes and fencing, and for railroad ties.
Then along came the chestnut blight, a fungal pathogen accidentally introduced in shipments of young trees from Japan in the early 20th century. The disease swept through the eastern forests, and within 50 years, the pure American chestnut was gone.
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