The American Chestnut Tree

The American Chestnut Tree

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Uncolonized North America was once inhabited by many organisms that have now become extinct. The extinction of these organisms can be blamed on the over harvesting of valuable resources or the introduction of foreign diseases from importation. One of these extinct organisms was the American chestnut. The American chestnut once inhabited the Eastern portion of North America from Maine to Florida. The great tree was once a dominant species that inhabited the Appalachian Mountains. The tree provided a staple diet to pre-colonized North American inhabitants and the immigrants of Europe. The great tree which dominated the overstory deciduous forest would soon meet its demise from a foreign invader by the mid- twentieth century.
The American chestnut was not only an important food source for almost all living organisms of the Eastern, North America, but it was very important in providing housing and furniture and numerous other wooden necessities. The tree possessed rot resistant properties and strait grained wood which were valuable in buildings and many other applications. Its enormous trunk rose one-hundred feet into the canopy of the forest. Diameters of five feet have been recorded and many photos of the tree show greater trunk girths. The tree was able to produce its eatable fruit within seven years of germination. It was said to be truly treasured by early Americans.
During the beginning of the twentieth century import and export traffic had increased dramatically due to mechanical innovations. The Bronx zoo which opened its door in November of 1899 was in process of filling the zoo with a diverse mixture of exotic animals and plants in order to draw the masses of New York inhabitants. One of the imported plants was the Chinese chestnut tree. With similar fruit to the American chestnut the Chinese chestnut was much shorter and bushier than the American species. The Chinese species also carried a deadly fungus which the American chestnut possessed no ability to defend against. The fungus was later named the chestnut blight.
The devastating chestnut blight was discovered invading its first victims in 1904. After exposure, the fungus enters into the trees cambium through the bark causing a canker. The fungus then spread around the cambium, girdling the tree, cutting of its life support and ultimately causing death. Many methods were used to try to prevent further infections, chemical fungicides, and burning other chestnuts around infected areas, but all were unsuccessful. The blight would soon reach through the Southern United States destroying all known native American chestnut trees.

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By 1950 the majestic giant was reduced to saplings. The only known remains of the American chestnut are only shoots from their original root system that sprout, but never reach maturity before being devoured by the chestnut blight.
Scientists are currently testing a method to breed a blight resistant American chestnut tree. The method used is known as backcross breeding and uses the blight resistant gene of Chinese species with the American species. The shoots of the American chestnut are breed with the Chinese species and then that offspring is breed back to the American. The process is done repeatedly till only one-sixth of the Chinese genome exists in the tree.
The possibility of reintroducing the American chestnut to the forests of the Eastern United States is promising. Unfortunately the process will likely take hundreds of years before we know if it is successful. Although the American chestnut could one day exist it will never be genetically identical to the original tree. If the method is successful our children may once again enjoy the beautiful and magnificent American chestnut.



Works Cited

USDA. (2013, December 4). Natural Resources Conservation Service. Retrieved from usda.gov
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