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“Kiss Your Ash Good Bye”

“Kiss Your Ash Good Bye”
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That’s what the Massachusetts state forester told me – the emerald ash borer is on the loose in southern Berkshire County where my wife and I have our 130-acre woodlot and within the next couple of years this pest is expected to kill virtually all the native ashes, or roughly 5% of the forest trees, in this region. In fact, this mortality is expected to become general throughout Connecticut, too, and eventually throughout southern New England and beyond. And to my mind, it is a good argument for the creation of GMO plants.

Ash infested with borers (Daniel Herms, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

This loss of trees to an introduced Asian pest is even more grievous in context. My region lost all its American chestnut trees (as much as 1/4th of the hardwood trees) to the ravages of an introduced Asian virus in the early part of the 20th century. More recently, it lost most of its hemlocks (an estimated 6% of the forest trees) to an introduced Asian insect pest. If the Asian Longhorn Beetle ever escapes from its limited urban outbreaks into the forest in general, 73% of the forest trees in southern New England would be at risk.

Asian ashes, chestnuts, and other trees which evolved alongside the Asian pests have a natural resistance. American scientists have tried to interbreed these Asian trees with their American relatives to transfer the resistance but given the long time it takes a tree to grow from seed to sexual maturity, progress has been painfully slow.  A 35-year effort by the American Chestnut Foundation to breed a resistant American chestnut, for example, has only begun to produce significant results in the last few years.

Genetic engineering offers a far more efficient way to insert genes for pest resistance into the DNA of American trees. This has already been accomplished with American chestnut trees and Dr. Paula M Pijut, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service, has been working on something similar for several species of North American ash trees in her laboratory at Purdue University. Both of these projects have been accomplished in a time scale of years rather than decades. An additional advantage of genetic engineering is that it is possible to produce resistant trees that differ from their American ancestors by only a handful of genes rather than the compromise Asian-American hybrids produced by conventional breeding techniques.

I’m no fan of GMO food, but GMO trees seem to me a far better alternative than a biologically impoverished forest.

Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on January 18, 2015 at 11:05 am, in the category Science Says.

9 Comments

    • kermit
    • 15th February 2015

    Yes. Like any technology, GMO is evil only in inappropriate applications. When unregulated and applied for the short-term profit of a particular company (I’m looking at you, Monsanto) it will not have our common interests at heart, let alone nature in general. Having introduced the pests, there are no natural and satisfactory responses, only best of several imperfect choices. GMO focused on resistance to an introduced pest sounds just right. It’s what nature would do, after all, given 1000 years of the current situation.

    • kermit
    • 10th March 2016

    I know that the black squirrel (a grey squirrel mutant) in the UK and the raccoon in Northern Europe and Japan are introduced from North America. I imagine that both are at least a low-level pest.

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 7th July 2016

    Actually, I just heard a lecture about how an American fungal disease is killing all the red pines in Japan. I think that because the Asian flora is bigger and more diverse, it tends to have more pests and we suffer more on this end.

    • Liz
    • 28th October 2016

    I dislike how people turn against GMO’s. It is a technology not a product. Like any technology it can be used for good and bad things. Too often I see people lumping all GMO products together with an air of hatred, leaving no room for situations like this were the technology could be used for very good things.

    • Tami
    • 22nd November 2016

    Good morning from central Indiana, where all the mature ash trees are dead or dying. One thing I’ve noticed as they die, however, is that under that stress, they produce tons of seeds. So I encounter ash seedlings all over the place. Perhaps you should begin gathering seeds from prime specimens around your acreage and find a seedbank to store them for you. It’s not answer to the problem you face but it could contribute to the solution you propose.

    • anne
    • 2nd December 2016

    Here in Oregon we have been dealing with the pine bark beetle, which destroys Ponderosa pine trees. We had a devastating ice storm a few years back that basically served up a smorgasbord of vulnerable trees to the beetles. Now that many of the trees in our area have been removed and time has gone by, the surviving trees seem to be doing ok. Meanwhile, a fir beetle of some kind is supposedly moving in…..and we have a lot more fir trees in our forests than Pondies. So my question is, in the countries of origin for these beetles, what is their nemesis? Have these beetles wiped out those trees completely, or is there a cycle they go through, leaving just enough trees to replenish their food source for the next go-around?

    • Linnea Borealis
    • 7th December 2016

    It’s hard to argue against GMO as an unnatural approach, when we’re expecting our forests to withstand unnatural threats. I fully agree with kermit in that any technology could put to use for good – or bad.

    • Vicky Shallow
    • 8th December 2016

    As info
    Emerald ash borer is a phloem feeder and is therefore possibly good food for woodpeckers especially yellow-bellied sapsuckers. As soon as they are recognized as food, the problem may go away. GMO may not.

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 9th December 2016

    I don’t think that woodpeckers on their own can stop the ravages of Emerald Ash Borer. But maybe in combination with some other biological controls carefully selected from the borer’s insect predators in its homeland, the birds could moderate the damage. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found a tiny predacious beetle that feeds on woolly adelgids and is saving hemlocks in that state.

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