Dr. Martha Crouch on SUNY ESF’s GE Chestnut

On 6 November 2014, news broke that SUNY’s department of environmental science and forestry would turn to genetic engineering to save the nearly extinct American chestnut tree. Using a wheat gene to create a new blight-resistant tree, the scientists’ excitement was almost palpable.

However, it is also dangerous.

In an effort to explain both sides of the genetic engineering coin, Dr. Martha Couch, a biologist and consultant for the Center for Food Safety, published a response to the original article.

SUNY ESF plan to release genetically engineered chestnut tree is too hasty (Your letters)
by Dr. Martha Couch, Syracuse.com, 14 November 2014

To the Editor:

Regarding Glenn Coin’s Nov. 6, 2014 story, “Breakthrough at SUNY ESF: Genetic engineering may save the nearly extinct American chestnut”:

Genetically engineered chestnuts? Not so fast.

Imagine: “Bald eagles genetically engineered with pigeon genes to withstand pesticides.” Or, “Scientists insert synthetic DNA into Florida panthers to resist deadly virus.”

Many conservationists would balk at interfering with wild animals in such an extreme way – directly manipulating their very nature by adding genes from unrelated species.

The first genetically engineered (GE) wild organism designed to spread in nature could debut in a few years. Drs. William Powell and Chuck Maynard from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse will soon seek regulatory approval to freely plant fertile GE American chestnut trees expressing a single wheat gene that confers resistance to chestnut blight, at least in experiments.

As a biologist familiar with GE tree research, I think release is premature. Their wheat gene is unproven outside of the lab, with no real-world track record even in crops, much less in a tree that can live hundreds of years. And the blight is likely to quickly defeat single gene resistance. These prototype trees should be confined to test plots, not let loose.

Read Cr. Couch’s full letter here.

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