Author Topic: The most controversial tree in the world  (Read 243 times)


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The most controversial tree in the world
« on: July 14, 2019, 03:57:53 AM »
Is the genetically engineered chestnut tree an act of ecological restoration or a threat to wild forests?

This is a great article. It's great science and nature writing. It takes a while to get going, but the argument takes an unexpected turn about halfway through and raises some questions I've been thinking about a lot in the last few years. Essentially, it asks "What is nature?"

Someone (Brad?) in a previous thread (on aerial photos of drought-ridden England?) made a comment like "I remember hearing in school that not a square inch of England had not been altered by man. That had a big impression on me."

The comment stood out, because the more I have learned about nature, the more I realize that is true for the US as well. I once came to Yosemite and thought I was seeing meadows as people had seen them back into the mists of time, only later realizing that most meadows here are dominated by species that didn't even exist in Yosemite in 1900.

This article speaks to that - the eastern forests were once dominated by massive, glorious chestnut trees. They are all gone, done in because someone brought a few fungus-infected chestnut seeds to the US from Japan. In my lifetime, I saw the mammoth elms disappear from the east, felled not by axe, but by a Eurasian pest. And now, in our times, the emerald ash borer, brought to the US in a packing crate, has now felled 99.7% of all ash trees.

Meanwhile, in California, studies show that the soil composition in the mountains is changing due to various pollutants, especially metals, in the smog that floats in from the cities. Preliminary findings suggest the changing soil chemistry is stressing some mountain plant species. Researchers are asking whether we need to use "assisted migration" to save the sequoia tree, which exists only in a narrow band and is sensitive to almost no pest because of the high levels of tannin, but is sensitive to small changes in temperature and soil chemistry, both of which we are conveniently providing.

So everywhere I go and look, I find it hard to find any square inch where some human imprint can't be found if you know how and where to look.

Anyway, this article is (for me at least) a wonderful piece of writing on this topic and basically asks: if we have so profoundly changed the forests, is a GMO tree a step too far or a saving grace?

Regardless of how you answer the question, it is, I think, one part of the most fundamental question of our times.
« Last Edit: July 14, 2019, 04:01:25 AM by ergophobe »


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Re: The most controversial tree in the world
« Reply #1 on: July 14, 2019, 11:16:12 AM »
There is a stand of American Chestnut trees planted by man, west of the Cascades in Washington State.  This was a desperation move to preserve the species back when it became clear that all the Chestnut trees in the Eastern US would likely die from the fungus.  An Ark if you will.  They figured the mountains would act as a barrier to infection and so far this has proven true.  But that is it, the last of what was once a common and highly valued tree species.  Of course, those Chestnuts can't leave.  If transplanted back East they would die.  So they are probably one source of genetic material for the scientists in the article you posted Ergo.

We've done a bit better with the American Elm.  Scientists noticed that there were a few elms that somehow were resistant to Dutch Elm and those are being cultivated by the traditional method into cultivars that appear resistant.  The trick is that it takes many decades to truly know if they will survive and if they can also survive the Asian Longhorn beetle which is coming this way.

Ergo, all this is interesting in that it applies to the idea of (re)planting forests to help combat climate change.

What do we plant? Where? Do we reintroduce the GMO Chestnuts and resistant elms?  Can we avoid creating new forests that are mono-cultures?

I love the idea of reforestation.  There are huge tracts of marginal farmland that could be reverted to forests plus urban tree planting could play a part.  I guess we will see.