The American chestnut, decimated by a fungus that scientists have tried in vain to quell throughout this century, finally may be on its way back to health, thanks largely to genetics.

Once a dominant tree throughout the Northeast, prized for the timber from its long, unbranched trunks, the American variety (Castanea dentata) stopped providing those famed chestnuts roasting on an open fire long before Bing Crosby's time. The tree bore sweet nuts, but they were small, and the quest for a meatier nut led to the species's downfall. Such notables as Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century and Luther Burbank in the 19th century imported European and Asian chestnut varieties. By 1904, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica was identified in New York City, and the blight had begun.

Thought to have come from Japan, the fungus causes cankers that disrupt nutrient movement and eventually girdle the stem. By...

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