By Victoria Hill, COM 250 Reporter
Edited by Jack Heerema, COM 303 Editor
MOUNT BERRY, Ga.—Tucked away near the reservoir on Berry College’s Mountain Campus, an area sits protected by tall fencing. Elsewhere, inside the Berry greenhouse, hundreds of newly planted seedlings sit in waiting. Both are the homes of a special hybrid chestnut, one carefully cultivated on Berry College’s soil.
In the early 1900s, a fungal blight nearly wiped out the American chestnut from the Eastern United States. At present, Berry is one of the many sites for a national chestnut revival project. Berry is working together with the Georgia Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, or TACF, to bring back the American chestnut, except with a twist.
Dr. Martin Cipollini, a biology professor at Berry College, and many student workers have spent 14 years breeding American and Chinese chestnut hybrids. Their goal is to develop an American chestnut with the blight-resistant genes of the Chinese chestnut. They do this by infecting the hybrids and breeding the surviving trees to create a new generation. The goal of a blight-resistant American chestnut is not far from reach.
“A way of thinking about this is that it’s one orchard away,” said Cipollini.
Most of this new generation of greenhouse seedlings will grow up and provide countless seeds that conservation workers will spread back into the wild forests of Georgia. The expectation is that within ten years, a sufficient number of blight-resistant trees will grow to maturity and establish a viable seed orchard, an orchard made specifically for distribution into the wild.
The Berry students involved in the venture do not simply leave the hybrid trees unattended. They assist with a variety of tasks, such as watering, manually pollinating, and conducting tests. Natalie Bailey, a junior biology major and student worker at Berry, said that it is cool to be part of this project, restoring a tree that our great-great-grandparents would have experienced as part of their daily lives.
In the summer of 2018, Natalie tested the hybrid chestnuts against the nuts of the American and Chinese chestnut trees. The nuts were tested for calorie and sugar content, and other chemical similarities to see how close the hybrid nut is to the original American chestnut.
Natalie was at the special two-student internship with the Georgia Chapter of TACF. Each year, the foundation hires students to work on the project during summer break.
“Berry pays their summer wages, though the Chapter kicks in their housing and their training and everything like that,” said Cipollini. “Students benefit by getting this really great internship experience.”
For John Patten, a senior Environmental Science and Spanish major, his multi-year experience working on this project provided him a sense of hope.
“The idea of taking something that has literally no hope, that’s functionally extinct, and working on it, working with it, and bringing it back to a functioning part of our forests,” John Pattern said. “It’s a hopeful project. There’s no other way to go about it.”
Across eastern America, The American Chestnut Foundation is working diligently to improve the biodiversity of forests and restore an American legacy. While Berry has plenty of students to help, that is not the case for the rest of Georgia.
“Probably the biggest challenge state-wide is maintaining a good membership, a good active membership that is happy to be doing their part but are not being overworked,” said Cipollini.