Our Guest This Episode: William Powell
In the early 1900’s, the fungal pathogen which causes chestnut blight was accidentally introduced into the United States. It was first detected in New York in 1904 and quickly spread throughout the eastern US forests. By the 1950s, this pathogen destroyed 90 percent of nearly four billion American chestnut trees.
Current projects bring hope for the majestic American chestnut tree. We spoke with Dr. Powell about his role as project leader in one such project.
Professor William A. Powell is the Director of The American Chestnut Research & Restoration Program. Dr. Powell received his Ph.D. in 1986 at Utah State University. He is a faculty member at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, NY, where he is researching the development of a blight-resistant American chestnut in collaboration with his colleague, Dr. Charles Maynard, and The American Chestnut Foundation.
Their chestnut project team has succeeded in developing a blight-tolerant American chestnut tree and is working with federal regulators for approval to distribute the trees to the public and to use them for the conservation of the species and in ecosystem restoration programs.
Dr. Powell shares his vision for this project and the research project processes. He talks about some of the project challenges including the re-introduction of these trees into the wild, managing risks, responding to critics, and effective project team communication.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“Our grandparents knew the chestnut tree. We did not. But our grandchildren will know it again.”
“The American chestnut was once one of the most common trees in the eastern forest and we lost it in about 50 years.”
The Podcast for Project Managers by Project Managers. In the 1900’s, a fungal pathogen which causes chestnut tree blight destroyed 90% of nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees. In this episode Dr. Bill Powell shares his vision and research processes which bring hope to this majestic tree.
01:10 … Meet Dr. Powell
02:57 … What Happened to the American Chestnut Tree
05:27 … The American Chestnut Foundation and Backcross Breeding
08:47 … Hypovirulence and Finding a Solution
10:03 … The Solution Process
11:20 … Blight Tolerant Samples
11:56 … The Regulatory Process
13:10 … Dr. Powell’s Career Vision
15:09 … Overcoming Challenges
16:33 … A Prepared Ecosystem
18:21 … American Chestnut Tree Project risks
19:36 … Responding to Critics
21:59 … Identifying Genetic Loci and using Oxalate Oxidase
23:40 … American Chestnut Tree Restoration Project Team
24:50 … Keeping Communications in Sync
25:38 … Project Funding
27:12 … Lessons Learned
28:14 … How to get Involved in the American Chestnut Tree
29:00 … Preparing the Next Generation
30:17 … About the Chestnut
32:18 … Learn More about the American Chestnut Foundation
33:24 … Closing
BILL POWELL: Our grandparents knew the chestnut tree. We did not. But our grandchildren will know it again.
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we meet to talk about how people like you are managing projects both big and small. Our guests include speakers, authors, and trainers, but also those who are right there in the trenches, getting the stuff of project management done on a daily basis.
I’m your host, Nick Walker. And before we get to today’s guest, we are thrilled to acknowledge the return of one of the founding fathers of this podcast, Andy Crowe, back from, well, I guess the project of a lifetime. Welcome back.
ANDY CROWE: Thank you so much, yeah, we’ve taken a short break. The boat, which is named Gratitude, is in Grenada right now. So we’ve sailed it from Florida, all the way down through the Caribbean, down to Grenada, which is really close to South America, and are waiting out hurricane season there.
NICK WALKER: Well, we’re going to talk with you more in detail about your adventure in the next podcast but…
ANDY CROWE: Great.
NICK WALKER: So let’s meet our guest, Professor William A. Powell is the director of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Program. Dr. Powell received his Ph.D. in 1986 at Utah State University, studying ways to bring back the American chestnut tree, a tree that became functionally extinct after being devastated by a fungus from Asia. Approximately 90 percent of the nearly four billion trees were killed by blight.
In 1989 he became a faculty member at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, New York. There he began collaborating with his colleague, Dr. Charles Maynard, and the American Chestnut Foundation, researching methods to develop a tree resistant to the blight. He’s worked for the last three decades to reintroduce the American chestnut to the wild, and their efforts are succeeding. Dr. Powell, so great to have you with us, welcome to Manage This.
DR. BILL POWELL: Thank you.
NICK WALKER: So let’s start off the conversation by learning more about your career path and how you became passionate about the American chestnut tree.
DR. BILL POWELL: So like most people, when I was younger, I actually hadn’t heard about the American chestnut, you know, it’s been gone for a while. But when I went to graduate school I was very fortunate to get into Dr Neal Van Alfen’s lab, and there we worked on the fungus that causes chestnut blight. And that’s where I kind of learned the chestnut story, and it’s a fascinating story because the American chestnut was once one of the most common trees in the eastern forest and we lost it in about 50 years.
So from that point as a graduate student I started learning about it, got very passionate about it. Had a little sabbatical from working with chestnuts while I was a postdoc, but I had the opportunity to get back to the chestnut research here at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the rest is history.
NICK WALKER: There’s probably not an American who isn’t familiar with the word “chestnut,” anyway, the concept of chestnuts.
ANDY CROWE: We sing about it at Christmas, don’t we?
BILL YATES: We do.
NICK WALKER: Every Christmas, yeah, and the poetry, “Under the spreading chestnut tree,” it’s so embedded in our culture. But let’s talk about what happened to the American chestnut tree and the impact this has had on the environment where once it flourished.
DR. BILL POWELL: Yeah. So a little over a century ago, the American chestnut was so common people used to say a squirrel can travel from Maine to Florida and never leave a chestnut tree. Within its range, about one out of every four trees were American chestnuts, and so what happened was people started importing Asian chestnut trees, and for a number of reasons – for ornamentals, for agriculture. When that happened, people didn’t realize at that time that, not only were they bringing over a tree, but they’re bringing all the microbes that are on that tree.
And so it turned out there was this one fungus in that tree called Cryphonectria parasitica that caused a minor blight on the Chinese chestnuts. But when it came here to the United States and jumped off into the American chestnuts, which had never seen this blight before, it really was devastating. And when it was first discovered in 1904, and by the 1950s it had gone through the whole range, killing around three billion, some of our largest trees in the forests.
ANDY CROWE: And Dr. Powell, I have a question for you along those lines. So today you have a range of trees, do you know off the top of your head about how high a tree in the average Eastern forest is? Is it 100 feet? Is it, you know, 90, 120, something like that? Or shorter?
DR. BILL POWELL: Well, it depends on the species.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah.
DR. BILL POWELL: But, yeah, a lot of them will go over 100 feet in height out West, where we have the giant Sequoias, but we have some pretty large trees here, too.
ANDY CROWE: And so how high were the chestnuts, on average, back a century, or let’s say 1890, you know, if you could…
DR. BILL POWELL: Right. So the mature trees would get up to 90 to 110 feet in height, around that range, some record ones might have gone up to 120. There’s actually a tree right now in Maine that’s 100 and – I think its 115 feet in height.
ANDY CROWE: Wow.
DR. BILL POWELL: One of the lone survivors.
NICK WALKER: How many trees are still around?
DR. BILL POWELL: So, you know, we lost billions of trees. But there are still literally millions of stump sprouts still surviving in our forests. And that’s a good thing because that gives us a genetic base to do a restoration program. So we’re not starting with just one genotype of tree, we actually have a nice base that we can work with to bring back the population.
ANDY CROWE: That kind of leads us into sort of the topic of our podcast is that we’ve gone from a time when the chestnut tree dominated the Eastern forest, at least in terms of what it was used for, it fed people by the bushelful. You know, whole communities were able to eat off of chestnuts at times, you know, when they were falling. It was furniture, it was for housing, it was for everything, and then suddenly it’s gone, relatively speaking. But there’s a movement that you’re very integral with to turn that back around.
DR. BILL POWELL: Yes. So there’s a group of laypeople and scientists who want to bring this tree back because it was such an important tree, most of them are in the American Chestnut Foundation that was established in 1983. And initially they started what’s called a “backcross breeding program” because the trees that were available at that time, the chestnut trees, were all hybrids or Chinese chestnut. Neither of those can actually survive in our forests, so the idea back then was to use a method that was also used in corn breeding to make these trees more Americanized or more adapted to our forests by crossing them with wild trees through several generations, getting rid of unwanted traits and trying to keep the resistance in as you went through it.
Then, after 1990, the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation came to us at ESF and said, “Well, there’s these new techniques out there called ‘genetic engineering.’” You know, “Can that be applied to restoring the American chestnut?” And they came to myself and Dr. Maynard, a colleague of mine here, and we said, “Well, we’re going to give it a try.” And so that’s kind of started our whole process with the genetic engineering.
ANDY CROWE: Which is different than the backcrossing. So I understood at one point, because I’ve kept up with this for many years, I understood at one point they felt like they had backcrossed it, what was it, six or seven times, and that it was to a point that they felt like they had the characteristics of the American chestnut with the blight resistance of the Chinese or Asian one. Is that semi-accurate?
DR. BILL POWELL: Almost. Not quite. So initially, when they started this program, they thought there was only two genes or two genetic loci involved with the Asian resistance. They quickly found from the breeding that there was at least three major ones. And then, as they went through more time, they actually find out that it could be as many as nine genetic loci, each on a different chromosome, that really complicates things. So what they’ve found is they think they might have lost some of the resistance genes along the way in the breeding program.
And so where they are right now is they have what we call “intermediate levels of resistance.” So higher than the original American, but not as high as the Asian parents, okay, so they’re kind of in between, and it’s complicated to try to get all the right genes in there. That’s quite different than what we’re doing because what we’re doing is actually we’re taking a wild American chestnut tree, and we keep everything that’s in there and just add in the genes we need for blight resistance. And by doing that, we end up with a tree that’s blight resistant, or we call it “blight tolerant.”
At the same time it has every single allele, every single gene that it originally had, so it’s fully adapted to our core. So we don’t have to do any backcross breeding. It acts as a dominant gene so when we outcross to wild-type trees, we can actually help rescue their genetic diversity and bring it into a restoration grouping.
BILL YATES: Dr. Powell, so how did you guys come up with this solution? I understand you’re using a wheat gene to create that blight resistance? Is that right?
DR. BILL POWELL: Yeah, so this is a bit of a process, again, my background in graduate school was to look at the fungus itself. And we were studying a thing called “hypovirulence.” Hypovirulence is when the fungus gets a virus, and that virus attenuates its ability to attack the tree, so that it can’t attack the tree normally. And a lot of researchers had been looking at that back then, and what they found was that one of the key virulence factors, ability to attack the tree, was the production of an acid called oxalic acid, or oxalate. So I learned that back as a graduate student.
Fast-forward to when I was a faculty member here, one of our postdocs went to a plant physiology meeting and came back with a book of abstracts. And so I was just leafing through that book of abstracts, and I saw this one that talked about this enzyme they put in tomato called “oxalate oxidase.” And right there was my kind of “eureka” moment where I said, well, look, if oxalic acid is a main virulence factor needed to attack the tree, and this enzyme breaks it down, we need to get those two things together, and so that started the whole idea of using this particular gene in the tree.
NICK WALKER: Dr. Powell, obviously this was not an overnight success, tell us a little bit about how long this took and some of the steps involved.
DR. BILL POWELL: Yeah, it was a very long process, and so in the beginning it was very hard to get funding to get this process going, too. At the time we started back in 1990, very few plants had actually been genetically engineered, trees especially, I think the only thing that was engineered was poplar at that time, hybrid poplar. So we had to actually kind of start from ground zero and develop all the techniques here at ESF, as well with our colleagues at the University of Georgia, Scott Merkle. And so we basically – I used to tell people we had to build a boat before we went fishing. So that meaning that we had to develop all the tissue culture techniques that would allow us to put a gene in and then regenerate a plant before we start searching for the right gene.
And that whole process took almost 16 years to get it really optimized where we can do it in less than a year, where we can put a gene in and start testing it. So in the meantime we actually started testing genes out in hybrid poplar because that was a model system, very easy to do. And that’s where we first tested the oxalate oxidase gene, showing that we can enhance resistance to another pathogen in there. And then later we put it into American chestnut.
ANDY CROWE: And so do we have examples today, or samples, or specimens that are blight tolerant?
DR. BILL POWELL: Yes, we do, so we have blight-tolerant American chestnut trees now. We’ve had them in the field since 2000 and, let’s see, was it 2006? And we’ve been testing them out in the field, I mean, we have like different versions, and so the different versions mainly have different levels of expression, meaning how much of this enzyme can the tree make. And we’re finally at the point where we have ones that are highly tolerant of blight, and these are the ones we’re starting to prepare to go through the regulatory process.
BILL YATES: Regulatory process. Okay. See, I was thinking you were going to say, so you guys can all go down to your nursery and just request this certain product that we’ve created.
DR. BILL POWELL: I wish.
BILL YATES: So tell us a bit about that regulatory process.
DR. BILL POWELL: Okay. So in the United States, when genetic engineering of plants first came about, they established this thing called the Coordinated Framework. And this is where you have three already established agencies. The USDA, EPA, and the FDA all regulate genetically engineered plants. And the idea is that, depending on their charge, at least one of them will regulate your plants. No plants would slip through. So we are actually working with them. It’s actually taken us some time because no university teaches about the regulatory system. So we had to kind of go, past five years, so going to them, learning how the whole thing works.
And right now we’re getting very close to first submitting to the USDA, and we’re mostly here with the USDA because they’re also the ones who handle our field permits because all our plants that are tested in the field are regulated by USDA-APHIS. And so they’re going to be the ones that we go to first, see if we can get what’s called “non-regulated status.” And then, with them and some of the other agencies, we can pass them out to the public.
ANDY CROWE: Dr. Powell, I’ve got a question for you. You know, we’re project managers. We think of the world in terms of projects. And oftentimes when you start a project it’s most useful to begin sort of with the end in mind. But this project will probably span several generations. What do you hope to achieve in your career? Like when you got to the end of your career, whenever that is, and hopefully it’s as long as you want it to be, what would you hope to have seen happen here? Because you’ve already made an amazing step.
DR. BILL POWELL: Yeah. We already went over some of the hurdles. And, you know, just making a tree that’s blight tolerant was a big deal for us. But the next thing is it doesn’t do us any good unless people can actually plant these trees. So the next hurdle that I really want to get through is this regulatory process. And so we’re really working hard on that right now. We’ve done all the experiments, things like feeding leaves to insects and feeding pollen to bees and feeding leaves to wood frogs and looking at mycorrhizae on the roots, doing all those type things. And now we’re putting together the documentation for the review process. But that’s, again, just another step. What I want to see before I leave, though, is actually see the restoration start.
BILL YATES: Right.
DR. BILL POWELL: And we actually have a plan to developing some orchards so that once we have permission, we can actually distribute trees. We don’t want to, you know, get the permission, and also only have a few trees, you know, in our research class. We actually want to have production orchards. So we’re planting those right now. We also want to have what’s called a “restoration demonstration forest” set up so we can kind of show how restoration could be done and be modeled by other people. And we want to have a distribution system set up so that we start getting these out to the public. And what we’d like to do is actually the first trees go out, actually have some citizen scientists help us out by following those trees and maybe having a website where they can put in data and stuff from growing their trees to see how they are doing. So that’s kind of what I want to do before I formally retire.
NICK WALKER: It’s interesting that you mention that you’ve got bees involved. You’ve got insects involved. Obviously there are a lot of challenges getting this tree that’s resistant to the blight into the wild. Can we talk more about some of those challenges and what really has yet to be overcome?
DR. BILL POWELL: So mostly the tests that we have done like, again, feeding pollen to bees and wood frog stuff, that’s mostly to satisfy the regulators, to show that our trees have no higher risk than trees that are produced by traditional methods. And we have the logic argument that we’re actually making smaller changes than traditional hybrid breeding, but we actually need some data. So those are what we’ve been doing really over the past few years.
Some of the big challenges is how do you actually restore a tree? No one’s ever done this before. Obviously, you have to have places to actually plant them. You don’t want to go down and cut down forest to plant chestnut trees. But there are a lot of places out there, such as we’re investigating mine reclamation. Those are great places to plant chestnut trees because actually that soil was usually pretty good for chestnut.
There’s a lot of diseases going out there right now. We’re losing trees to emerald ash borer, to hemlock woolly adelgid, to a thousand cankers disease of walnut. So as those trees die out, you know, what are people going to plant? And we could just plant more oaks, but then we might have sudden oak death come through. So, you know, there’s going to be places for these things to be planted, and we’ve got to kind of investigate what is the best method to have that happen.
BILL YATES: Dr. Powell, when I’m thinking about that, and I’m thinking about the regulatory hurdles and obstacles that you guys have to overcome, it just makes me think, okay, I guess one of their fundamental questions is, is the ecosystem prepared to reintroduce this tree, the American chestnut tree? How do you answer that question? How do you guys tackle that?
DR. BILL POWELL: That’s an excellent question, and I get that a lot at my seminars, you know, because chestnut up north here has been gone for over 100 years, in the south for about 50 years. So is the ecology out there changed so much that the chestnut really can’t fit back in there? And that really isn’t the case. You’ve got to think about evolution. You’ve got to think about the environment. A hundred years is actually just a blink in an eye for the species out there.
And just kind of as an example, we did this wood frog feeding experiment where we fed our genetically engineered chestnut, wild-type chestnut leaves to the wood frogs, but we also included things like sugar maple and American beech and oak. And what we found was that there was really no difference between those, whether it was transgenic or not, except for one experiment we did. And that is the rate of development. And it turned out in that one experiment the chestnut actually did better than sugar maple or the American beech, no matter if it was genetically engineered or not; okay? And that kind of tells us those wood frogs are still adapted to feeding off chestnut leaves.
And something similar happened when Bern Sweeney, one of our colleagues, did a study with aquatic insect feeding, not with our transgenics, but with a wild type, and found out that actually one of the aquatic insects that he looked at preferred the American chestnut over like the oaks, which have since replaced them. So that I think the ecosystem is still sitting there ready to accept the chestnut back.
ANDY CROWE: So Dr. Powell, along those lines, you know, risk is a huge part of project management – evaluating risks, understanding them. What, if I can ask this, what keeps you awake at night with this whole project? Is there anything that kind of concerns you? Is it all about the regulatory? Do you feel like you’re ready to go except for the regulatory hurdles? What risks concern you?
DR. BILL POWELL: So, you know, I’ve been working with this now over 30 years, and I don’t see any environmental risks that really keep me awake at all. I think actually this is going to be an environmental benefit. Some of the things that I worry about really is the anti-GMO movement and stuff that might try to stand in the way of this restoration program. What I hope they realize is that this is not the typical GMO, you know. This is not something that we’re going to be making a profit off of. It’s something that we actually want to do to benefit the environment. I mean, that’s what our whole college is here for. We’re the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
So, you know, I hope they start thinking a little differently that, well, maybe this is a good cause or a good case for using this tool, genetic engineering, especially since our forests are being threatened by so many different exotic pests and pathogens.
NICK WALKER: It’s my understanding that there is some opposition, though, to some of what you’re doing, people who are basically perhaps against genetic engineering at all, some people saying we shouldn’t be introducing these trees back into the ecosystem. So how do you respond to your critics?
DR. BILL POWELL: So mostly, again, this is kind of a different situation and we’ve actually had some of our colleagues do surveys and stuff with the public. And there’s actually a lot more acceptance of a genetically engineered chestnut tree than a lot of the genetically engineered crops. So we have a little bit of advantage there.
But I would try to tell them that, if you really want to have a tree that’s going to be adapted to our forests, genetic engineering is actually the best tool to use, much better than backcross breeding or hybridization because you’re not bringing in all these extra traits that did not evolve in this part of the world. They evolved on the opposite side of the globe. They are not adapted to our forests. So if you really want something that’s going to be able to actually fulfill its ecosystem services, this is the way to go, and that’s what I try to convince them.
Some people don’t like it because they say, well, it’s not natural, but it is really natural because genetic engineering actually happens in the wild. so if your definition of “natural” is what happens in nature, the sweet potato that we eat every day, that’s actually been genetic engineered by the same Agrobacterium that we use in our lab. It was done out in the wild 8,000 years ago. All the butterflies you see out there, they’re all genetically engineered by parasitic wasps, you know. So if you see the non-GMO label on those foods, that little butterfly is actually a genetically engineered butterfly. Of course, some people you can’t argue beliefs, I mean, if someone just believes this is not right, I can’t argue that. All I can do is give them the best scientific evidence that this is actually a better way to go than traditional methods.
ANDY CROWE: Well, so you know, it’s certainly a very precise way of going about it, as opposed to sort of blunt force that happens often in nature. So you know, nature can be a brutal instrument, and this is more like a scalpel of just changing exactly what needs to be changed.
DR. BILL POWELL: Absolutely, and that’s why, again, for restoration purposes, that’s so important because you don’t want to change something that allows the tree to be adapted to forests.
ANDY CROWE: At the risk of getting too technical for our audience, I’m curious, how did you guys go about identifying the nine genes? So when you look at the scope of work for this project and you realize there may be up to nine genes involved that express in order to allow it to be blight tolerant, how do you find those nine?
DR. BILL POWELL: Okay, so that was work done by the American Chestnut Foundation and some other universities working together. Jared Westbrook is the leader of the breeding program, and he’s really the one that’s kind of done the calculations on breeding to find out, after all these years, how many genetic loci are probably involved. So it’s kind of complicated, it’s basically looking at how genes segregate through each generation.
But those particular genes aren’t the gene that we’re putting in with genetic engineering. Nice thing about genetic engineering is you don’t have to rely on a species that can breed with your species, so we can actually take from other species, such as wheat. And this particular gene – we used the oxalate oxidase gene – is actually very common in a lot of different species, it’s found in all grains and many dicots also, so it’s out there. You eat it all the time, and that’s one of the things we like about it.
Only thing is that our chestnut trees did not have it, so we need to bring that thing in, we are looking at those nine genes from the Asian species. None of those will give you full resistance by themselves, you’d have to stack them. And we are starting to look at that to try to identify them, and so the way you identify them is you look what genes are at those genetic loci for resistance, and there could be lots of them there, could be 10 to 100 genes. And then you take those, and you engineer them into a plant and see if you actually enhance resistance, and we’ve just done that with a few and saw we can bump up resistance a little bit. But again, they’re going to have to be stacked and maybe combined with our oxalate oxidase.
BILL YATES: Dr. Powell, so you’ve mentioned some other universities that you are partnering with that you guys are working with. Give us a quick idea of how many are on your project team at your university, and then what other universities do you communicate with on this project on a regular basis?
DR. BILL POWELL: Okay, so on our team we run between 20 to 25 people on there, right now I have, like, five full-time staff researchers and one part-time. I have seven graduate students, and then every semester the numbers change, but five to eight undergraduates have been on the project also. During summer we also have high school students that come out and help with the project, too. So that’s our core group here.
But we work also with other faculty at ESF – Tom Horton for mycorrhizal stuff, James Gibbs for wood frog stuff. We also work with people at University of Georgia, Scott Merkle, he does a lot of the tissue culture with American chestnuts. We work with people at NC State, at Purdue, at the U.S. Forest Service, that’s not a university, but still that’s a research group. And so quite a few different places, can’t think of them all off the top of my head.
BILL YATES: Yeah. Dr. Powell, quick follow-up on that, so one of the frustrations that I’ve had when I’ve been collaborating with others on a big project before is we’ll start overlapping and doing the same work. It’s like, okay, we did that three weeks ago. Why didn’t you ask before? You know, we’ve already run those tests. We’ve already acquired those resources. So how do you guys keep from stepping over each other? How do you communicate and stay in sync?
DR. BILL POWELL: Yeah, so I think a lot of it is either through – we do have phone conferences with our groups. We also, you know, we have several meetings a year where we get together and talk about it, there’s this one group called the NE-1088, I think, or 1388, the number changes every year. It’s a USDA research group that specializes in chestnut, and everybody presents what they’ve done in the past year, and so if you kind of keep up with what everybody’s doing, there’s less chance that you’re going to overlap.
NICK WALKER: Where do you get your money to do all this? Who’s funding all this?
BILL YATES: Who’s paying?
DR. BILL POWELL: Well, so a variety of sources, and the biggest funder and the longest term funder has been the American Chestnut Foundation, initially with the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. But they’re actually the ones that approached us and asked us to do this project, and so they’ve been with us the whole time. We’ve gotten funding from New York State, actually from the state budget. And we’ve got funding from regular granting agencies such as USDA, now we have the USDA BRAG grant, which is the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant. We’ve gotten money from NSF. We get private donations. And we actually had crowdfunding campaigns where we raised over $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign and had donations from 48 of the 50 states in the United States, so, you know, it’s a very popular project.
We have had some corporate funding, but that’s, you know, actually come back on us, but that’s less than 4 percent of our total funding has been from corporations. And I would never take that back, some people say we should never have done that, but I wouldn’t. Because that actually started, back when we were doing this project, and we were getting a lot of funding from the state, New York State, and then 9/11 happened. So when 9/11 happened, all our state funding disappeared instantly. And we actually had a company called ArborGen who came in and started giving us some funding – not the total funding that we lost, but some of the funding to help keep us going for a number of years. Then we, you know, that stopped, and we went back to our regular funding sources.
NICK WALKER: One of the things we talk about on this podcast now and then is, if I had known then what I know now, you know, what I know now, what would you have done differently, if anything?
DR. BILL POWELL: That’s interesting because the oxalate oxidase gene that we use comes from wheat. And we only picked that one because it was the most studied at the time, there was a lot of publications on it, and you always want to go with something that’s well known. But the gene’s found in lots of different plants, so that’s kind of coming back to bite us because now when we go to the FDA, the FDA has a rule that, if you have a food with wheat in it, you have to label it that it has wheat in it. And so, even though it’s only one gene out of over 30,000 genes, probably won’t have to label it.
But when we go to the regulatory place we have to give a justification why we shouldn’t have to regulate, you know. So if we had picked it from corn or, you know, some other plant, we wouldn’t have that problem, it’s just that just added some extra work. You know, the regulatory system isn’t pure science, it’s also a lot of other things, too.
NICK WALKER: You mentioned the crowdfunding earlier, so is there a way that people can still get involved in this project?
DR. BILL POWELL: Absolutely, well, the easiest way, of course, is to join the American Chestnut Foundation because they’re our biggest supporters. There you can actually volunteer and help with the project, but another thing that we’re really trying to do right now is because we’re going to probably be sending our USDA petition sometime this fall, and there’s going to be what’s called an “open comment period.” And this is where the public weigh in on this regulatory process. And what we would really like to do is have people who want to restore the chestnut tree write in during that open comment period and let them know that, yeah, people want to plant these trees. This is an important tree, and so we’re going to, you know, be broadcasting this once it opens up and try to get as many people to help that way as possible.
ANDY CROWE: Dr. Powell, so I have a question for you here as we’re looking at this whole project. Fascinating thing about this to me is that it spans more than one generation, we’re not going to see the forests restored in our lifetime to where they were in 1890. So what are you doing or what is the American Chestnut Foundation doing to kind of prepare the next generation of people to take the baton here and continue the work?
DR. BILL POWELL: We always consider this as a century project. To really kind of get a significant number of trees out there is going to take 100 years. And we’re just kind of the spark to start it off, so what we are doing actually here at ESF, and I know that the American Chestnut Foundation does very similar things, is we try to talk to the public as much as possible.
I give anywhere from 10 to 20 public talks every year, so you know, I’ve given webinars to third graders. I’ve had my students go to elementary school classes. We’ve worked with an author who wrote a book on the chestnut for middle school students, so we’re really trying to reach the next generation so that, you know, they will know these trees. It’s kind of interesting. I always look at it this way. Our grandparents knew the chestnut tree. We did not, but our grandchildren will know it again.
NICK WALKER: Before we go, I’ve got to ask you one question here, I assume that you’ve actually produced trees that have borne nuts; correct?
DR. BILL POWELL: That is absolutely correct, so that’s an important part of our research, to make sure that this tolerance is inheritable from generation to generation. We’ve actually gone through three generations now with the chestnut, what we do is we’ve developed a method where we can get pollen from our genetically engineered trees in less than a year. And that’s pretty significant because normally in the field it would take you six, seven years to do crosses. But since we can do that in less than a year, we can take that pollen, and then we grow what we call “wild-type mother trees,” and we cross with those trees and collect the nuts, and half the nuts will inherit the blight tolerance gene, okay?
So we’ve done that, we’ve taken the offspring, we’ve tested those, we grew those up, made pollen, again cross them, and so on and so forth. And so we actually have a plan with the American Chestnut Foundation to go through like five different generations to make sure that we don’t have any what’s called “linkage drag,” make sure that we have a lot of diversity and local adaptation for different regions through the chestnut. So we’ve got this big breeding program that they’re going to be continuing on for next probably decades.
NICK WALKER: Okay, let me tell you why I ask you that question because, as somebody who has actually tasted chestnuts that have been roasted over an open fire, and tasted how scrumptious they are, have you done a taste test with these new nuts from the blight resistant trees?
DR. BILL POWELL: Excellent question. And I will probably be one of the first to actually eat them, but right now we do not, only because they are too precious to eat. You know, last year we harvested around 700 nuts, and we used every one of them in our experiments or in our planting for the production orchards and stuff. So, you know, until we start having an overabundance, we won’t be doing that, we have to send nuts out for nutritional testing, things like that. So, no, I haven’t taken any and eaten it yet, but I probably will be the first.
NICK WALKER: We want to hear back how they taste once you do that. Hey, so how can people get in touch with you and learn more about the American Chestnut Foundation?
DR. BILL POWELL: Okay. So we have a website here at ESF, just basically go to www.esf.edu/chestnut, and that gets you to our website, tells you all about what we do here at ESF. And if you’re interested in the American Chestnut Foundation, they have a website which is of course www.acf.org. And in there you can find out all the things they do, as well as how you can join up to a state chapter, if you’re interested.
NICK WALKER: Well, Dr. Powell, thank you so much for being with us to share your expertise. Bill, as always, thank you for your part, and Andy, so wonderful to have you back and finding this wonderful conversation that we could have.
ANDY CROWE: This has been a good one. Thank you, Nick.
NICK WALKER: And one more thing, Dr. Powell. So you may have seen this right here, this is our Manage This coffee mug we’re going to send to you with our thanks for being our guest today.
DR. BILL POWELL: Well, thank you. Appreciate it. This was fun. I always like talking about the chestnut.
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That’s it for this episode of Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on December 4th for our next edition, so until next time, keep calm and Manage This.