American Chestnut project update

The last month has gone by incredibly fast! At the beginning of the summer, we set out all of the American Chestnut and Red Oak seedlings at Sullivan Greenhouse, near the law school. So far, all are growing well and look extremely healthy.  Olivia and I have been out every week or so to either apply fungicide or take measurements on plant growth. It’s really just a big waiting game at the moment, as the mycorrhizae in the plant soil will not be ready for analysis until the end of the summer. In the mean time, my biggest project-related job will be to learn how to perform the experimental procedures (both PCR and root staining) that we will be doing later on to identify the quantity and type of mycorrhizae living on these tree roots. Hopefully all of our materials will come in within the next week so that I can start practicing on tree roots that we’ve collected from the college woods.milkweed2

I haven’t been totally idle this entire month though! My advisor, Dr. Dalgleish, has been performing research on Common Milkweed plants at Yorktown Battlefield and the Blandy Experimental Farm in Winchester, VA. I’ve tagged along on those trips to get more experience in the field and have learned much more about proper field techniques and data analysis than I ever thought possible. It’s also been wonderful getting to know the other undergrads and grad students during the trips- everyone is incredibly intelligent and dedicated to their work, which as a student who is new to research is very inspiring.

Before I finish up, I’d like to talk a little bit more about the American Chestnut tree, and why its such an amazing plant to study. Prior to the 20th century, chestnuts were the dominant hardwood of eastern American deciduous forests and could be found in abundance all along the east coast. They are the fastest growing tree in America, as well as one of the most rot-resistant. Because of this, Chestnuts was a hugely important component of lumber industries and of the economy. However, in 1904 a fungus cryphonectria parasitica migrated to the US from Asia which decimated the entire population(Brewer). Humans were unable to find an effective method for treating blight-infected Chestnuts, and could do nothing but watch as this fungus killed billions of healthy Chestnut trees in a few decades. Today, this species is considered to be functionally extinct,  meaning that it no longer plays a significant role in the ecosystem. Original populations of adult individuals are down to a few hundred, and new growth usually  is infected with the blight before it can grow to be more that 5 cm in diameter.

There is a fairly large group of scientists and conservationists today whose main goal is to study the ecology of the American Chestnut tree, both as is was before the blight and today, as well as develop new preventative techniques that could potentially halt the blight that still persists today. Their hope is that one day, American Chestnuts can return to their historical prominence in the forests. It is still debated whether or not the blight will ever be cured, or whether it is even worth reintroducing this species back into an ecosystem that has already adapted to live without it. But these past decades of research surrounding this tree, ranging from genetics and microorganisms (thats me!) to population dynamics, has only helped to expand our collective knowledge, not just of chestnuts, but of forests as a whole. Even as we ask the question: can this tree ever return to eastern forests? we are challenging ourselves to learn and understand the entirety of that ecosystem, like putting together all of the pieces of a puzzle in order to find out which part is missing. This is an endeavor that I’m proud to be a part of, and very excited to share with all of you.

 

 

Brewer, Lawrence G. “Ecology of Survival and Recovery from Blight in American Chestnut Trees (Castanea Dentata (Marsh.) Borkh.) in Michigan.” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 122.1 (1995): 40-57. Print.