CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A coastal Maine orchard is one of only three spots in the country where researchers have planted what could be the forest of the future.
But what makes that future different is that it contains the next wave of American chestnut trees — the kind made in a lab.
Last week, after receiving a permit from the federal government, Maine scientist Thomas Klak and his team planted hundreds of transgenic chestnut seedlings in an experimental orchard in the remote coastal town of Cape Elizabeth.
If the experiment helps restore the mighty chestnut to American forests, it would be “the biggest ecological turnaround in North American history,” said Klak, a gene conservationist with the American Chestnut Foundation and a major player in the national restoration effort.
Americans miss the chestnut more than they realize. Often called the “redwood of the East,” the keystone species was the most valuable tree this side of the Mississippi River, stretching as much as 100-feet high with trunks 10-feet thick. Native Americans used the chestnut for its medicinal leaves, and it was a staple food source for birds, insects, fungi and mammals. People baked chestnut flour and made chestnut pudding, and used its premium wood for houses, furniture, instruments and other woodcraft.
But the chestnut was all but wiped out. A nurseryman carrying Japanese chestnut seedlings overseas introduced a type of blight to the species. The fungus spread an orange rot across chestnut populations from Maine to Appalachia to Canada, killing 4 billion trees and having significant impacts on the ecosystem. Though some are still scattered across the country, the chestnut has been functionally extinct for 70 years.
But science has other ideas.
“This is a wild chestnut tree with 35,000 American chestnut genes — and one extra gene,” Klak told his crew of volunteers last week as he held a sapling.
That extra gene is a simple wheat gene also found in strawberries and barley, and which contains blight. Klak, who teaches environmental studies at the University of New England, hopes the gene will inoculate the young chestnut to help it withstand blight’s effects in the wild.
Besides that, transgenic chestnuts act the same as the originals did 150 years ago, Klak has found — in other words, substantially more useful than most trees. In experiments, tadpoles feeding on transgenic chestnut leaves grow 50 percent faster than with maple leaves, suggesting the nutritious qualities of the original American chestnuts are intact. Trees can also be coppiced, meaning they more quickly regrow after a cut at the trunk, making them more sustainable than other hardwoods.
Maine stands to benefit more from chestnuts this time around. The tree’s native range stretched only as far northeast as midcoast Maine, but climate change has likely broadened that growth area, making it likely the tree will survive in northern parts of the state.
Joseph Staples, an environmental science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said chestnuts could affect Maine’s ecosystem in interesting ways. Climate change models project the state’s forests in the future to look like the woods found in southern Connecticut to northern New Jersey today — not good. Those regions are exactly where chestnuts were abundant.
“In the current environment that we find ourselves with climate change impacting forest composition, you’d expect that [chestnut] ecosystem to have crept up the coast,” Staples said. Reintroducing chestnuts to local forest projections could substantially brighten the outlook.
Ecologists like Staples can only speculate how the ecosystem would respond to new chestnut-rich forests, but the possibilities are enticing. Maybe the tree helps decarbonize the atmosphere more quickly? Maybe adding a nutritious food source helps wildlife biodiversity, which is rapidly declining? Maybe that biodiversity can, in turn, reduce tick populations and the spread of Lyme disease?
The Cape Elizabeth site was chosen because there are 17 living chestnut trees nearby, scattered throughout a 2,000-acre property of the Sprague family. The trees are mostly young and some are on the losing end of a battle with blight, but they’re strong enough. Seth Sprague, a retired businessman and conservationist, contacted Klak through the foundation. He’s hoping to continue what he described as the ecological vision of family patriarch Phineas W. Sprague, an oil and coal businessman who died in 2014.
“It’s all about conservation,” Sprague said. “It fits with the idea of preserving the land the way it was.”
The experiment in Cape Elizabeth is also being conducted at orchards at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, New York, and at the American Chestnut Foundation headquarters in Marshall, Virginia.
Chestnuts are bisexual. They make male and female flowers, but can’t reproduce by themselves. To make transgenic trees as closely matched to the ones found in the wild, Klak needed pollen from the naturally occurring chestnut trees on the Sprague land, which he matched with seeds from the forestry college in Syracuse.
The transgenic trees at the Cape Elizabeth orchard were planted alongside traditional chestnuts, blight-tolerant Chinese chestnuts and hybrids. In three years, Klak will introduce the trees with the chestnut blight and see who survives. The science behind the transgenic ones is solid, he says, but he doesn’t expect the others to survive the experiment. The ones that do will remain on the Spragues’ property, but the long-range plan is for the engineered trees to become available to the public.
For that to happen, three federal agencies would have to deregulate the tree — the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and, because it’s a food, the Food and Drug Administration. That could be a couple years off.
According to Klak, government officials have a hard time licensing the restoration project because there’s no ownership of transgenic chestnuts.
“There’s no patent, no copyright,” he said. “When they get a request from someone to make a genetically modified crop it’s because someone wants to make a lot of money on it. [The restoration campaign] is not about money. It’s about bringing back a tree where it belongs.”
Not everyone welcomes GMO chestnuts. An opposition campaign called STOP GE Trees, an arm of the Global Justice Equality Project, sees the effort to restore forests with transgenic chestnuts as “a dangerous open-air experiment.” It says the project lacks long-term risk assessments and could flood forests with weird stuff. Worse, opponents see the chestnut trees as a “Trojan horse,” setting the stage for companies to produce “frankentrees,” industrial plantations and other profit-motivated schemes.
Some scientists see a distinction between genetically engineered trees and GMO crops produced by big agricultural companies. GMO corn, for example, is engineered to withstand glyphosate, a pesticide, so that Monsanto can spray it on large swaths of land without suppressing its growth.
“Because humanity has already impacted the environment so much, just stepping off and taking a hands-off position is simply not an option,” said Staples, adding that he opposes GMO crops on the shelves of supermarkets. Instead, people should “be active in trying to provide resilience” to a natural ecosystem lost as a consequence of human activity, including the industrial pursuit of monoculture and GMO foods.
Klak is happy to consider other methods of bringing the American chestnut back, but doesn’t believe that what he sees as remote uncertainty about the future of a forest filled with transgenic chestnuts should hold scientists back from acting.
“We’ve already acted,” he said. “We acted by killing 4 billion chestnut trees and totally disrupting the eastern ecosystem. It’s not a matter of waiting to see if we can do something — we’ve already done something very terrible. So what are we going to do about it?”