GMO's in the Wild?
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) was once prominent throughout eastern North American forests. However, the accidental import of an Asiatic chestnut tree in the early 1900s to NYC’s Bronx Zoo would go on to spread a fungal infection that would soon wipe out most of the American chestnut population. Entering the tree through cracks, the surrounding bark becomes infected, eventually killing everything above it. Although new sprouts can still arise from the surviving roots, they too will eventually succumb to the infection and die. It is estimated that three and a half billion American chestnuts were lost in less than four decades. Now in 2018, over a century after this devastating blight began, an attempt to recover the once dominant tree is underway with the introduction of Darling 58, a genetically-modified American chestnut that is resistant to the blight fungus.
An article in Science Magazine writes of the efforts in motion to introduce the genetically-modified (GM) American chestnut into the wild. Geneticists at SUNY ESF, the creators of Darling 58, are looking to present the GM chestnut to U.S. regulators within the coming weeks in search of approval to plant the tree in forests. This request is surely significant – unlike GM crops, trees are especially controversial, and only typically gain approval for use in areas such as fruit orchids and afforestation projects. The introduction of Darling 58 would be the first attempt in North America at restoring a native species using a GM tree. Objections to this project is not without reason; several determinations must be made prior to its introduction into the wild. Firstly, they must ensure that the tree is of no threat to other existing native species. If Darling 58 were discovered to be of an invasive nature, this would clearly do more harm than good. Another obstacle the GM tree faces is the possibility of the blight fungus evolving new mechanisms around its defense, or even a new pathogen entering the US posing a threat to the trees and killing them once again.
Although unlikely outcomes, the genetically-modified American chestnut will struggle with the possible threats of the tree posed by these various U.S. regulations. The primary argument seems to be that the time and effort that will be placed forward to enact this initiative will be completely lost if any of the above events occur. Do the risks outweigh the potential benefits? Possibly, though it will likely take several years before a consensus is reached.
Posted by Alexandra Rios (3)