The Plight of the American Chestnut:
During 2020, while mankind faced a global pandemic, I often found myself reflecting about another pandemic. Specifically, the plight of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) .
Up till 1940, the ancient American Chestnut was one of the most prolific trees in the eastern United States (with at least 25-50% coverage pre-1900). As many a sixth grade history textbook will impress upon you – it was also one of the cornerstones that built both Native American and colonial society.
If you’ve never experienced ‘roasting chestnuts over an open fire’, the chestnut has a homey, rich, and hearty flavor. Their taste is very similar to a sweet potato. I have heard of them used in everything from sherry flavored desserts to meaty stews. The images above show you what a ripe chestnut looks like, alongside their doppelganger the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, who are beautiful imitators in their own right – but are utterly foul tasting).
Incredibly, the American Chestnut is one of the few tree nuts the weight-loss crowd would actually be a fan of. They store their energy as a low-calorie carbohydrate – and not as fat. While most tree nuts range from 60-90% fat content, the chestnut is a dietary superfood featuring only 5% fat.
Its rot resistant wood is also a prized commodity. In its heyday, the timber was used for everything from house framing to coffins. Famously called the “Redwood of the East”, you can still find sturdy 100-year old furniture pieces being sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
Around the 1860’s a catastrophic and globally imported fungus began decimating this native species. Forestry experts were slow to notice it though, and it wasn’t till around the early 1900’s that attention was being paid. By that time, the spread was already well past control and present in multiple states. By the 1940’s massive skeletons were all that remained of the once robust American Chestnut forests. Plantation efforts to revive the species are mostly failures. Most cultivated saplings live no more then 5-15 years. Some of these juveniles have stems no wider than an inch before they succumb to the blight.
Similar to the COVID-19 vaccine effort, the race to cure the American Chestnut has many players. These include transgenic cross-breeding efforts in both academic and corporate labs, to the Chestnut ‘bounty hunters’ who are combing over eastern hillsides with “Reward for Healthy Trees” posters.
Almost anyone who has ever seen the black and white images of the giants, wants them to return.
For many of us, our grandparents’ generation are the last generation who can even vaguely remember what it was like to walk under a mature American Chestnut tree.
If we succeed in bringing them back, it will take hundreds of years to make a complete recovery. If we do, it will likely be my grandkids – and not my kids – who will have the chance to walk in their shade.
As science allows us the chance to emerge from our own pandemic wastelands, the lessons of both the past year and the American Chestnut weigh heavily on me.
To list the top 3:
1. In genetics and science, diversity is crucial to survival and success.
“Backcross breeding” is one of the hopes for reviving the American Chestnut. The secret of the sauce lies within genetically diversifying the American Chestnut with strains of the blight-resistant Chinese variant. In the case of COVID-19 vaccine, much of the work that enabled its rapid creation can be credited to Katalin Karikó, whose own career storyline is riddled with the diversity challenges of being both a women and an immigrant in academia.
Much like genetic cross-breeding, the field of science thrives and shows resilience when we have a diversity of backgrounds working in it. From overspecialization to systemic bias, a field that limits its ability to cultivate hybrid perspectives and hybrid models of work has very little chance of overcoming big problems. Which is why when there is talk (isn’t there always talk?) about promoting the growth of STEM careers in our education system, we can’t do so without addressing the lack of diversity in those fields. It is the most inherent flaw facing STEM’s growth and sustainability.
2. There are no single ‘silver-bullet’ solutions for ANY of our advanced-civilization problems.
(…also ‘silver-bullet’ solutions are a poor substitute for avoiding and containing outbreaks in the first place.) At the time of writing there are at least 6 COVID-19 vaccines approved for use, and several hundred still in trial phase. Since the vaccines first became available, governments around the globe have been itching to ‘open’ back up their economies. Numerous media outlets are pleading for an end to mask mandates and for a return to ‘normal’ life. Meanwhile, multiple deadly variants have been cropping up. The increase of these specific variants, combined with the new ‘open borders’ travel strategy, could set the stage for a whole new global outbreak.
An outbreak that our brand-new COVID-19 vaccines might be ill equipped to handle.
In the eyes of many, the COVID-19 vaccines are the ‘silver-bullet’ cure. The solution to end the shut down. However, scientists know that no vaccine can ‘cure’ the virus, or end the pandemic. Back to the case of the American Chestnut, science has also cultivated a solution for its dilemma. Since 2020, a political war has been waging regarding the USDA effort to approve the Darling 58 cultivar. This transgenic chestnut hybrid was created with an additive oxalate oxidase (OxO) gene (cultivated from a wheat enzyme). To many: Darling 58 has become the poster child for all the potential – and potential risk- that comes from introducing genetically modified plants into the wild. Clearly, the American Chestnut is in dire straights. A drastic solution might be its only chance of survival. However, we are very limited in our thinking to assume this is the only possible solution. We are also short sighted if we don’t continue trying to find ways to block the pests and pathogens that are spreading in North America. (Spoiler alert: commercial nurseries introduced the chestnut blight, by transporting and selling non-natives that carried it).
Pandemics – like most of our global issues (see: climate change) – are not caused by any one factor. They are caused by many. It is a problem that has that many heads – and thus it will take many heads to solve it. It is important to remember that, and always keep investing in a multi-strategy approach.
3. Ultimately, we lose the battle in pandemics due to our lack of early detection and prevention measures.
Prevention is the ultimate goal on the pandemic battlefield. Every moment you are not fighting and preventing the spread – you are losing. With every transmission and infection, the possibility for a new variant outbreak becomes more likely. The only way to beat a pandemic is to stay ahead of it.
In the case of the American Chestnut, a 60 million year old species that has become functionally extinct in a mere 40 years – the blight spread at astoundingly fast rates of up to 30 miles per year. With COVID-19 the spread rate was just as rapid. Though the actual numbers vary (from country to country), right now the current hot-zones of India and China are forecasting a new confirmed case every 0.5-.07 seconds. The situation is not unlike dealing with wildfires. All firefighters say that early detection is key to keeping a fire under control. After that – maintaining preventative measures to keep fuel growth manageable and recurrence risk down is just as critical as early detection. Much of our most important firefighting actually takes place in the beginning – and sometimes even after – the fire season ends. The same is true with pandemics. How you respond in the beginning, and towards the end, are the most critical stages of the fight. I can only hope that the hard lessons of our past guide us well in tackling the next stages of the American Chestnut blight and the COVID-19 pandemic.