Chestnut blight

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Chestnut blight fungus
Chestnut blight.jpg
Cankers caused by the fungal infection cause the bark to split.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Fungi
Phylum: Ascomycota
Subphylum: Pezizomycotina
Class: Sordariomycetes
Order: Diaporthales
Family: Cryphonectriaceae
Genus: Cryphonectria
Species: C. parasitica
Binomial name
Cryphonectria parasitica

The pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica (formerly Endothia parasitica) is a member of the Ascomycota (sac fungi) taxon. It is the main cause of chestnut blight, a devastating disease of the American chestnut tree that in the early 1900s caused a rapid, widespread die-off of the once plentiful tree from its historic range, in the Eastern United States.


The chestnut blight is a fungal infection affecting the American chestnut tree that had a devastating economic and social impact on communities in the eastern United States. It later spread to other parts of the world including Italy.[1] The fungus is spread by wind-borne ascospores and, over a shorter distance, conidia distributed by rain-splash action.[2] In the first half of the 20th century it killed an estimated 4 billion trees. Infection is local in range, so some isolated American chestnuts survive where there is no other tree within 10 km. There are at least two viral pathogens that weaken the fungus through a mechanism termed hypovirulence that helps trees survive.[3][4]

The root collar and root system of the chestnut tree have some resistance to blight infection due to soil organisms adversely reacting to the fungus; consequently, a large number of small American chestnut trees still exist as shoots growing from existing root bases. However, these regrown shoots seldom reach the sexually reproductive stage before being killed by the fungus.[5] They only survive as living stumps, or "stools," with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds. This is just enough to preserve the genetic material necessary to engineer an American chestnut tree using genes from any of the disease-immune Asiatic species to confer resistance to the disease.

American chinquapin is also highly susceptible to chestnut blight. The European chestnut and the West Asian species are also susceptible, but less so than the American species. Surviving chestnut trees are being bred for resistance to the blight, notably by The American Chestnut Foundation, which aims to reintroduce a blight-resistant American chestnut to its original forest range within the early decades of the 21st century.[6] The resistant species—particularly Japanese chestnut and Chinese chestnut, as well as Seguin's chestnut and Henry's chestnut—have been used in these breeding programs in the US to create disease-resistant hybrids with the American chestnut.[7] It's important to realize, though, that even Chinese chestnut trees vary considerably in blight resistance. Some individuals are quite susceptible while others are essentially immune to the disease.[8] Many kinds of environmental stress may break down a tree's resistance to blight. Indeed, at higher elevations in areas exposed to severe climate, normally resistant, Oriental chestnuts have been killed by blight.[9] The fungus will also infect other tree species such as oaks, red maples, staghorn sumacs, and shagbark hickories.[10] Once infected, these trees will also exhibit orange bark with cankers. However, they will not exhibit shoot die back and death of the main tree. Instead the pathogen will be able to persist in trees, causing the fungus to be able to attack new growth in American chestnut trees.


The chestnut blight was accidentally introduced to North America around 1904 when Chryphonectria parasitica was introduced into the United States from Japanese nursery stock.[11] Commonly known as chestnut blight, it was first found in the chestnut trees on the grounds of the New York Zoological Garden (the "Bronx Zoo") by Herman W. Merkel, a forester at the zoo. In 1905, American mycologist William Murrill isolated and described the fungus responsible (which he named Diaporthe parasitica), and demonstrated by inoculation into healthy plants that the fungus caused the disease.[12] By 1940, most mature American chestnut trees had been wiped out by the disease.[13]

Infection of American chestnut trees with C. parasitica simultaneously appeared in numerous places on the East Coast, most likely from Castanea crenata, or Japanese chestnut, which had become popular imports.[14] Japanese and some Chinese chestnut trees have some resistance to infection by C. parasitica: the infection usually does not kill these Asian chestnut species. Within 40 years the nearly four-billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated.[15] — only a few clumps of trees remained in Michigan, Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest. Because of the disease, American chestnut wood almost disappeared from the market for decades, although it can still be obtained as reclaimed lumber.[16]

It is estimated that in some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one in every four hardwoods was an American chestnut. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet and could grow up to 100 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 14 feet at a few feet above ground level. For three centuries many barns and homes near the Appalachian Mountains were made from American chestnut.[17]

For the people of the southern Appalachians, the American chestnut was economically important. The reddish-brown wood was lightweight, soft, easy to split, very resistant to decay; and it did not warp or shrink. Because of its resistance to decay, industries sprang up throughout the region to use wood from the American chestnut for posts, poles, piling, railroad ties, and split-rail fences.[18] Its straight-grained wood was ideal for building log cabins, furniture, and caskets. The fruit that fell to the ground was an important cash crop. Families raked up chestnuts by the bushels and took wagon loads of them to sell in nearby towns. The people even cooked the chestnuts for their own use. The bark and wood were rich in tannic acid which provided tannins for use in the tanning of leather.[19] Many native animals fed on chestnuts, and chestnuts were used for livestock feed, which kept the cost of raising livestock from being prohibitive.[20]

Efforts started in the 1930s and are still ongoing, in Massachusetts[21] and many other places[18] in the United States, to repopulate the country with these trees.[22]

A small stand of surviving American chestnuts was found in F. D. Roosevelt State Park near Warm Springs, Georgia on April 22, 2006, by Nathan Klaus of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.[23][24]


A chestnut tree that has been cut down, with blight on its inner bark and trunk

The fungus enters through wounds on susceptible trees and grows in and beneath the bark, eventually killing the cambium all the way round the twig, branch or trunk.[25] The first symptom of C. parasitica infection is a small orange-brown area on the tree bark. A sunken canker then forms as the mycelial fan spreads under the bark. As the hyphae spread, they produce several toxic compounds, the most notable of which is oxalic acid. This acid lowers the pH of the infected tissue from around the normal 5.5 to approximately 2.8, which is toxic to plant cells. The canker eventually girdles the tree, killing everything above it. Distinctive yellow tendrils (cirrhi) of conidia can be seen extruding in wet weather.[26]

Environment and disease cycle[edit]

The primary plant tissues targeted by C. parasitica are the inner bark, an area containing the conductive tissue, and the cambium, a layer of actively dividing cells that give rise to secondary vascular tissues. In these tissues, the pathogen forms diffuse cankers in which the mycelium overwinters.[27] In the following spring, two types of fruiting bodies will form: pycnidia, usually first, and perithecia.[27] Following rainfall, the pycnidia ooze orange tendrils of conidia, the asexual spores, while perithecia forcibly eject ascospores, the sexual spores.[27][28] Upon becoming airborne, ascospores are carried by eddies of wind to new hosts or infect other parts of the same tree.[27] When insects, birds, or other wild life come into contact with the cankers, they can mechanically disperse the conidia to a new host.[27][28] Additionally, the asexual spores can be dispersed by rain splash.[28] Once on the new host, or new area of the tree, the spores can germinate and infect the innerbark through insect wounds and fissures in the outer bark.

If cankers continue to form and expand, the fungus can girdle the stem, severing the flow of nutrients and water to the vital vegetative tissues. The absence of nutrient dispersal will result in tree death, however, the root system will survive. As a result, American chestnuts exist mainly as shrubs sprouting from the old, surviving roots.[28] However, these sprouts usually succumb to infection by C. parasitica before reaching sexual maturity.

Management: hypovirulence, sanitation, and chemical control[edit]

In Europe during the late 1960s, it was found that a strain of C. parasitica was less virulent, only able to produce shallow cankers that the tree could eventually form callus tissue over. The trait of hypovirulence could be transferred from an avirulent strain to a lethal strain through anastomosis, the fusion of hyphae.[29] It was later discovered that this attenuated virulence was due to infection by a dsRNA mycovirus, Cryphonectria hypovirus 1 (CHV1).[30]

Considering the nature of hypovirulent strains, there has been a strong interest to use them to manage lethal C. parasitica strains. In Europe, natural dissemination of hypovirulence in pathogen populations resulted in the restoration of economically valuable chestnuts.[29] Unfortunately, this was not the case in the United States. Unlike Europe, the US has a greater diversity of C. parasitica strains.[31] Thus, the spread of the mycovirus in American C. parasitica populations are inhibited by vegetative incompatibility, an allorecognition system that inhibits the fusion of hyphae between individuals that are genetically distinct at specific loci.[30][29] Recently, however, “super mycovirus donor strains” of C. parasitica have been engineered to overcome this incompatibility system and could potentially be employed as a method of biological control.[32]

In addition to biocontrol, chestnut blight can also be managed by sanitation practices and chemical control; however, such management strategies are only feasible on a small scale, such as in an orchard. Sanitation practices like the pruning of symptomatic limbs and removal of infected trees can serve to eliminate sources of inoculum and limit the spread of the pathogen.[27] Additionally, some fungicides have been shown to be effective at controlling disease. In a study on the chemical control of chestnut blight in Castanea sativa, it was found that the external application of both copper oxychloride and carbendazim could reduce the rate of disease by almost 50%.[33]

Conservation efforts[edit]

There are approximately 2,500 chestnut trees growing on 60 acres near West Salem, Wisconsin, which is the world's largest remaining stand of American chestnut. These trees are the descendants of those planted by Martin Hicks, an early settler in the area. In the late 1800s, Hicks planted fewer than a dozen chestnuts. Planted outside the natural range of American chestnut, these trees escaped the initial wave of infection by chestnut blight, but in 1987, scientists found blight also in this stand. Scientists are working to try to save the trees. There is a program to bring American chestnut back to the Eastern forest and funded by the American Chestnut Foundation, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, West Virginia University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University.[34]

Removing blighted trees to control the disease was first attempted when the blight was discovered, but this proved to be an ineffective solution. Scientists then set out to introduce a hyperparasitic hypovirus into the chestnut blight fungus. The trees infected with virus-treated fungus responded immediately and began to heal over their cankers. However, the virus was so efficient at attenuating fungal growth that it prevented spreading of the virus from an infected fungus growing on one tree to that growing on another tree. Only the virus-treated trees recovered. Scientific opinion regarding the future of the stand varies.[34]

Hybrid chestnut trees[edit]

Current efforts are under way by the Forest Health Initiative to use modern breeding techniques and genetic engineering to create resistant tree strains, with contributions from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Penn State, the University of Georgia, and the US Forest Service. One of the most successful methods of breeding is to create a back cross of a resistant species (such as one from China or Japan) and American chestnut. Researchers identified 2 or 3 genes that allow for blight resistance, and are focusing on giving the American chestnut hybrids only those genes from the Chinese or Japanese chestnut.[35] The two species are first bred to create a 50/50 hybrid. After three back crosses with American chestnut, the remaining genome is approximate 1/16 that of the resistant tree, and 15/16 American. The strategy is to select blight-resistance genes during the back crossing, while preserving the more wild-type traits of American chestnut as the dominant phenotype. Thus, the newly bred hybrid chestnut trees should reach the same heights as the original American chestnut. Many of these 15/16 American chestnut hybrids have been planted along the East Coast, including in the Jefferson National Forest and on the Flight 93 National Memorial. Some of these sites have had researchers check on the saplings that have been planted to see their survival rate. For the hybrids to do well, they need areas with decent drainage and abundant sunlight.[36] Meeting these needs can be hard to do, so not all restoration areas have been successful with hybrid survival.

Transgenic blight-resistant chestnut trees[edit]

Plant pathologists, Drs. William Powell and Charles Maynard, working at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, have developed American chestnuts which have full blight resistance. Full resistance was attained by introducing a wheat gene coding for the enzyme oxalate oxidase into the American chestnut genome. This enzyme breaks down the oxalic acid secreted by the chestnut blight into carbon dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. Early studies on hypovirulence showed that less virulent strains of the chestnut blight produced less oxalic acid when attacking the cambium.[37] The transgenic trees produced through this method have blight resistance either equal to or surpassing that of Chinese chestnuts.[38] In 2013, SUNY ESF had over 100 individual events being tested, with more than 400 slated to be in the field or in the lab for various assay tests in the next several years and more than 1,000 trees growing in several field sites in 2014.[39] Government approval will be required before returning any of these blight resistant trees to the wild.[40] The New York Botanical Garden has planted several of the transgenic trees for public display.[41]

Economic and ecological impact of disease[edit]

In less than fifty years after its emergence, C. parastica virtually eliminated American chestnut as a canopy species in 8.8 million acres of forest.[42] The chestnut fruit was a major food source for animals in the low elevation Appalachian forests. This loss resulted in a drastic decrease of the squirrel population, the extinction of 7 native moth species, and the slowed recovery of deer, Cooper’s hawk, cougar, and bobcat populations.[43] The effects of this disease also rippled further through the ecosystem, being linked to a decrease in the abundance of cavity-nesting birds and to a decrease in river water quality which negatively affected aquatic invertebrate populations.[42] In 1912, standing chestnut timber in just three states was estimated to be $82.5 million ($1.9 billion in current dollars) in value.[42] Therefore, in addition to ecological impacts, C. parasitica potentially caused a devastating loss in economic welfare for communities dependent on the chestnut tree. Mountaineers, residents of Appalachian Mountain communities, had to drastically alter their life styles to cope with the effects of this disease.[43]

See also[edit]


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