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Bringing Back the American Chestnut

I saw a cool story the other day, that confirmed something that Miles has written about on several occasions.  It was a story in The Atlantic about how genetic engineers are using genetic science to bring back the American Chestnut.

Here are some relevant passages from the article:

“Researchers at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry have been trying to build a better American chestnut, one that would be resistant to the blight, and there’s reason to think they’ve succeeded. Such a plant could repopulate the vast region of the eastern United States in which the tree was once found.

“It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic reversal this would be. Chestnuts were once one of the most abundant trees in the eastern United States, making up about 25 percent of the mature timber. Today, there is a section of its Wikipedia page titled “surviving specimens,” and it is not long.”

Notice how this passage spells out the future of how genetic engineering will work to increase bio-diversity:

Now that may not sound like much if you don’t spend all your days thinking about chestnut blight, but to Powell, it struck a bell in his brain — oxalic acid is the toxin that chestnut blight produces. “Immediately I thought, well, here’s a gene that we could use in the chestnut.” That gene came from wheat.

Powell reached out to one of the authors of that paper, Randy Allen at Texas Tech, who mailed him copies of the gene in a test tube. Back at the SUNY-ESF lab, they began by putting them into hybrid poplar (they still at that point were unable to genetically engineer chestnut). That worked, and they were able to increase the poplar’s resistance to another fungal pathogen. “That kind of showed us, oh, this is a good gene to use,” Powell said.

In the case of the American Chestnut they found a gene that is present in wheat.  So the new tree they create becomes a hybrid of wheat and chestnut to prevent fungal infection.  Also notice how genes are copied and sent around in a test tube.  Notice the similarity between genetic engineering and installing an app on your smart phone or a plugin on your wordpress site.  This open source approach to genetic engineering is what will position this revolution to undermine 20th century environmental policy.  In order to succeed in in its conservationist objectives, the 21st century environmentalist will have to shift from trying to control human behavior to trying to control information, which will put their movement on the same side of history as the old music recording industry, Muammar gaddafi, and whoever it was that tried to pass SOPA into law.

Finally there is this:

All of which is to say, we may soon find ourselves in the position of being able to engineer, through genetic manipulation, an ecosystem more healthy and diverse than it would be if we just left it alone; with 21st-century biotechnology, we could recreate something more like the forests of old.

Which is what we have been saying pretty regularly on this site.  20th century environmentalism is simply not compatible with the 21st century.

About Rajiv

I am a venture capitalist. I am currently focused on bio-tech, genetic engineering, and merging these fields with big data. I am not always political, but when I am, I am a libertarian.

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One comment

  1. I applaud the efforts on behalf of those seeking to bring the chestnut back. I am rather confused, though, as to where this huge tree will be grown? In the parking lots that now occupy its former range? In the stands of pine that have been laid-in? Is there space, anymore? Who will be willing to give this tree space to become what it was? And while we’re at it, is this GMO going to be what the chestnut was? It’s got some wheat in it. It’s not quite right. I am far more supportive of those who seek to build a tree by cross-breeding strains, rather than injecting foreign bodies into genes. Does anyone buy tickets to the Elvis impersonator concerts? Some, I agree, but they all know that it is the impression of Elvis they are after, the impersonator doesn’t deserve the respect of the original. No one thinks that this is really Elvis. Likewise, the GMO chestnut will always be a cheap-Vegas version of the original in my mind, worthy of about as much respect as the thoughtless troglodytes who spend their time splitting genes.

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