People might sing about roasting chestnuts on an open fire at this time of year, but it's a safe bet few do any actual roasting with American chestnuts anymore. They're a little too hard to find, relative to the days of yore. However, a story in Modern Farmer raises the hope the once-mighty chestnut tree will rise again in a generation or three, thanks to work now underway by forestry experts and scientists. The story provides the background: American chestnut trees were a dominant force in the US landscape—rot-resistant wood, abundant nuts, etc.—until a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia decimated the population more than a century ago. Numbers dropped from as many as 5 billion to the 435 million that remain today. While not technically extinct, they are "functionally extinct," says Sara Fitzsimmons of the American Chestnut Foundation.
One big reason is that survivors in the wild today are paltry compared to their ancestors—maybe 15 feet tall, instead of 100 feet, with the vast majority only an inch in diameter at breast height. The story, though, lays out why Fitzsimmons and others have hope: Scientists are using practices such as "backcross breeding"—transferring desirable traits from one variety to another—as well as genetic engineering in their push to restore the chestnut tree to its former status. The first practice is not the solution, but it could help the trees hang on in the wild until the second is perfected. For now, a fungus-resistant variety of genetically engineered trees—known as Darling 58—is being grown in controlled environments but not allowed to flower. That won't happen until federal regulators sign off and allow them to be planted in the wild. (Read the full story, which explains how "citizen scientists" can help.)