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Scientists work to create blight-resistant chestnut with hopes of restoring tree to America

April 25, 2023

Black and white photo: people stand in a grove of massive hardwoods.
Old-growth American chestnut circa 1910. Chestnut blight was first documented in 1904 in a borough of New York City. The blight killed about 4 billion American chestnut trees in the first half of the 20th century. USDA Forest Service photo.

GEORGIA—American chestnut once was a keystone species in our nation’s eastern forests, where it influenced community structure and ecosystem processes. It spanned more than 200 million acres from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Illinois. Exotic pests from Asia, notably the chestnut blight, decimated it about 100 years ago. Its demise altered forest ecosystems and reduced species diversity.

“Its ecological and cultural importance has made returning this treasured tree to the landscape a priority for many individuals and conservation groups,” said Regional Forester Ken Arney. “Its demise also altered forest ecosystems and reduced species diversity.”

A coalition of federal agencies, states, nonprofits, universities and private citizens have been working to create a blight-resistant chestnut. The American Chestnut Research & Restoration Program at the State University of New York has developed one such tree, known as Darling chestnut.

This effort is part of a larger initiative to use forest biotechnology as a tool to protect and restore our nation’s forests from the ravages of pests, diseases and other threats. Collaborators include the Forest Service’s Southern Region and its Southern Research Station, the American Chestnut Foundation, State University of New York, University of Georgia, Penn State and Virginia Tech. The Forest Service has provided funding, technical expertise and sites for test plantings of traditionally back-crossed chestnut seedlings, including the Pisgah, Cherokee, Nantahala, George Washington, Jefferson, Allegheny and Green Mountain national forests.

The Forest Service, in close collaboration with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, chose chestnut as the initial prototype to support forest restoration. Approval of this blight-tolerant chestnut would lay the framework for restoration of other tree species, such as ash and hemlock, that have been similarly devastated by invasive species.

The Darling chestnut is being reviewed by three federal agencies: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (as biotechnology in agriculture), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (as a genetically engineered food) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (as a plant incorporated protectant).

You can learn more by watching the Forest Service video below about the American chestnut. Additionally, the American Chestnut Foundation has just released a new documentary about this work, "Rescuing the American Chestnut."