A genetically modified tree doesn’t necessarily come with all the baggage of genetically modified organisms in breakfast cereal.

No single corporation with deep pockets is behind the creation of the new transgenic American chestnut tree, which contains a gene from wheat that makes it resistant to chestnut blight. (The Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic arm of the Monsanto Company, which has come under fire for its work with GMOs, is one of many donors to the project, but so are the Camp Fire Fund of America and the Lions Club.)

To begin with, there are no plans for big monocultures of chestnut trees.

And the motive is to save a species.

“We are not patenting the blight resistant American chestnut trees so that once we have regulatory approval, all people will be able to propagate them themselves,” the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project says on its website.

But if the federal government approves the dissemination of the transgenic chestnut tree developed at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, “It will inherit the controversy that is associated with GMO,” says Tom Klak, an environmental studies professor at the University of New England.

Before it can be passed out to the states for propagation and planting, the tree must undergo review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – a process that is expected to take at least two years.

“They have to show that putting this gene in from wheat doesn’t have any unintended consequences,” said Jared Westbrook, director of science at the American Chestnut Foundation. “Namely, does it affect the growth of the tree? Does it affect pollinators? Does it affect any of the beneficial fungi, like the fungi that colonize the roots and help them take up nutrients?”

Westbrook said that even within his organization’s own ranks, there’s concern that the genetically modified tree may be seen as an ecological magic bullet.

Scientists worry that the fungus that causes chestnut blight could evolve and one day overcome the tree’s disease resistance.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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