Research Communications

Tree of Life 

Botanists nurture blight-resistant version of the famed chestnut tree

October 19, 2011

The American chestnut, which once covered 188 million acres of eastern forests, went extinct in Ohio in the mid-1930s due to a blight from plants imported from Asia. By the 1950s, it had been wiped out in the rest of the nation.

“The American chestnut was one of the most important nut-producing species in the entire eastern deciduous forest,” says Brian Atkinson, an Ohio University student in environmental and plant biology. “It supported huge populations of wildlife.”

Ecologists now are working to restore the tree to its original population levels by breeding the American chestnut with a blight-resistant Chinese version.

Brian Atkinson
Brian Atkinson. Photo credit: Robb DeCamp.

Atkinson is studying ways to aid the tree’s restoration in Ohio forests. Protecting the chestnuts from predation is one of the biggest challenges in growing the hybrid chestnuts in the wild.

Under the guidance of Brian McCarthy, a professor of environmental and plant biology and president of the Ohio chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, Atkinson measured and compared several predator repellants on hybrid chestnuts that were nearly 15/16 American. The work was funded, in part, by the Undergraduate Research Immersion Program (UGRIP) sponsored by the Ohio Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Studies (OCEES) at Ohio University.

In his first study, Atkinson tested the effectiveness of deer guards against predators in a chestnut orchard at Dysart Woods Laboratory in Belmont County, Ohio. Deer guards, which resemble a plastic tube, were placed around half of the planted seedlings under study. The other half received no protection. Atkinson recorded the growth of the seedlings and documented the death rate at each site.

Though the guards didn’t impact the survival of the plants, the protected seedlings did grow significantly more than the ones without protection. The tubes may provide photosynthetic light penetration and create a microhabitat for optimal growing conditions, Atkinson says. The seedlings from one particular genetic line (of 11 tested) fared the best in the experiment, he adds.

In his second study, conducted at Waterloo Wildlife Experiment Station in Athens, Ohio, Atkinson found that a predator repellent treatment called “plant skydd” had no significant impact on the chestnut seeds’ success, compared to a control group.

A volunteer for the American Chestnut Foundation for two years, Atkinson is invested in reintroducing the chestnut to the wild. He and McCarthy have presented the results of the study at a scientific meeting to share their findings more widely with those in the conservation effort.

Postscript: Atkinson won a first-place award for the chestnut research at the Ohio University Student Research and Creative Activity Expo in May and was named the recipient of the university’s Distinguished Professor Scholarship. In summer 2011, he worked on a paleobotany project with Distinguished Professor Gar Rothwell in which the researchers described an ancient preserved conifer from Vancouver Island, Canada.

By Milissa Hudepohl

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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