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SUNY ESF scientists bringing back the American Chestnut tree

After nearly a quarter century of research, a team from SUNY ESF is on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
Syracuse (WSYR-TV) – After nearly a quarter century of research, a team from SUNY ESF is on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

They’ve developed an American Chestnut tree that’s resistant to the blight that all but wiped it out almost 100 years ago.

Biologists Bill Powell and Charles Maynard are finally at the point they’ve been working toward for so long – they just didn’t know it would take 23 years.

“We were getting our grants in the 80s. We said we’ll have it knocked in about five years then go onto something else. It took a lot longer than that,” said Maynard.

The small seedlings were developed to be resistant to the blight that wiped out nearly 5 billion American Chestnut trees in the Eastern United State about 80 years ago.

"25 percent of our forests were chestnut trees and these were some of the largest trees in the forest, five to ten feet in diameter, 80 to 100 feet tall and they produce a very nice nut crop every year so it’s very important to wildlife,” said SUNY ESF biologist Bill Powell.

But until now, no one could figure out how to grow the trees without them becoming blighted.

"There's all kinds of permitting to get done and it’s much more complicated than just traditional tree breeding,” Maynard said.

Because the trees have been biogenetically engineered the USDA, EPA and FDA have to approve them before they can be passed out to people.

“Longbranch Park was named because of the chestnut trees that used to be there before the blight, so it would be great to actually put some trees back in that area so they can have their namesake back,” Powell said.

The pair said that while they led the work, about 61 people over the years have contributed to the operation.

They currently have about 1,000 trees planted in various locations. They’re still trying to determine the best spot to introduce the tree.

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