UNIVERSITY PARK – A consortium of universities including Penn State recently received a national award for research that scientists hope will result in a blight-resistant American chestnut tree being reintroduced into U.S. forests.
The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities recognized the project, “Biological Improvement of Chestnut through Technologies that Address Management of the Species, its Pathogens, and Pests,” by bestowing it with the Excellence in Multistate Research Award.
Penn State’s School of Forest Resources, part of the University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, has played an important role in the chestnut genetics portion of this multistate research project since its inception in 1982, according to school director Mike Messina.
“Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology, and Sara Fitzsimmons, a research assistant who is Northern Appalachian regional science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation, play a major role in the foundation’s breeding program and are currently responsible for evaluating its most advanced progeny test established here in the Arboretum at Penn State,” he said.
“The lab of John Carlson, professor of molecular genetics, is sequencing the Chinese chestnut genome to identify all of the blight-resistance genes. The chestnut genome project is funded by The Forest Health Initiative, a joint effort of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, industry, and the U.S. Forest Service.”
Steiner is director of the Arboretum at Penn State; Carlson is director of the university’s Schatz Center for Tree Molecular Genetics; and Fitzsimmons is director of the chestnut foundation’s breeding program in the Keystone State.
Before the introduction of chestnut blight in the late 19th century, American chestnut was among the most valuable trees in eastern North American forests, spanning from Ontario to Georgia. The only eastern forest tree that approached the dimensions of the gigantic Pacific Coast rain forest conifers, it was referred to as the “Redwood of the East.”
“The tree was prized for its high quality wood, tannin extracts and nuts,” Messina said. “However, the Chestnut blight disease, caused by the filamentous fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, eliminated the American chestnut as a canopy species and elevated oaks as the most dominant tree group in the southern Appalachians.”
Loss of the American chestnut has resulted in significant biological and economic changes, Messina pointed out. Widespread oak decline also has occurred in the southeastern United States over the past 20 years, leading to declining forests. It is believed that southern Appalachian forest ecosystems will not be considered healthy until chestnut can be reintroduced, as other natural replacement species grow much more slowly than chestnut.
“Return of chestnut to eastern forests would vastly improve existing forest stands, positively impact wildlife and contribute to carbon sequestration in North American forests,” the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities stated in a news release about the award.
“The focus of the project from its inception has been on one overarching topic — restoration of the American chestnut. This project has served as a model for what multistate research projects should accomplish.”
Other institutions involved in the project include Auburn University, University of California at Davis, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station-New Haven, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts, Michigan State University and University of Missouri.
Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State University