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PLANT BIOTECH

GM chestnut, Sierra Club darling

The first genetically modified chestnut tree now has a thumbs up from Sierra Club, an environmental organization that normally opposes genetic technology. Sierra Club objections may have crumbled because, unlike in corporate industrial agriculture, the purpose behind genetically engineering the chestnut tree is to save it. Blight has all but wiped out the American chestnut, Castanea dentata. The blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, was introduced in the late 1800s with imported Japanese chestnut nursery stock. By 1950, four billion American chestnuts (99.9% of the species) had died. The transgenic tree, known as Darling 58, is engineered to resist blight. The project to restore the American chestnut to its former glory is ongoing at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Scientists at SUNY used Agrobacterium to insert a wheat oxalate oxidase gene into the wild-type American chestnut. The oxalate oxidase reduces the blight’s pathogenicity by converting oxalate from the fungus into hydrogen peroxide and carbon dioxide. Tests so far indicate that the trees are protected. SUNY is now seeking official approval before the transgenic chestnuts can be released into the wild.

American chestnut in flower. Credit: Nick Kurzenko / Alamy Stock Photo

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Melton, L. GM chestnut, Sierra Club darling. Nat Biotechnol 39, 400 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-021-00903-w

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