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Return of the Chestnut

Researchers are turning to a variety of techniques to bring back the American chestnut tree, NPR reports. The chestnut used to make up a quarter of hardwood forests on the East Coast, but it was brought low in the early 1900s by a fungus carried by imported Chinese chestnut trees.

By crossing the few remaining American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts, which are resistant to that blight, researchers from the American Chestnut Foundation hope to develop resistant American chestnut trees. "The hybrids that we're looking to produce — we want them to be indistinguishable from the American tree," Carl Absher from the Virginia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation tells NPR. He and his colleagues then grow the trees up to see whether they are resistant to the fungus.

But that approach is painstaking and slow, so researchers at Virginia Tech are instead using genomic tools to investigate blight resistance among American chestnuts. "We can actually use breeding and biotechnology to take a tree that's functionally extinct and bring it back to life," Jared Westbrook from the North Carolina chapter of the foundation adds. And if it works in chestnut, he says it could be applied to other threatened tree species.