IF EVER THERE was a tree that has inspired devotion, it’s the American chestnut, once one of the most common trees in East Coast forests. Thoreau considered it among the “noblest” trees he encountered in his walks through the Lincoln woods, while settlers in the southern Appalachians found the nuts and timber such valuable allies in their struggle to survive that the tree became a regional icon. When an imported plague, the chestnut blight, all but eradicated the tree in the early 20th century, people mourned from Georgia to Maine.
Since that time, ardent fans have struggled to pull the chestnut back from the brink. Most of their efforts have relied on old-fashioned breeding techniques – investing the tree with blight-resistance genes from other species of chestnut through the laborious and lengthy process of hand-fertilizing flowers, planting the resulting seeds, cultivating trees, and culling inferior specimens. And then doing it all over again. But a pair of forestry scientists at the State University of New York in Syracuse are now exploring a different idea: that genes from other plants, and even from animals, might provide the chestnut with completely new weapons to thrive again in the Eastern forests.
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