The research goes by the rather sterile name of “NE-1033,” and even the expanded version is a bit bland: “Biological Improvement of Chestnut through Technologies that Address Management of the Species, its Pathogens, and Pests.”
What those designations mean, however, is nothing less than saving the American chestnut tree from almost certain extinction. And it’s been going on at West Virginia University for more than three decades.
That research, led by William MacDonald in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, was recently recognized for excellence by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.
“The APLU award is indeed a significant one as it recognizes the collaborative accomplishments of researchers from 14 land-grant institutions, the federal government and a non-profit organization,” MacDonald said. “The scientific challenges inherent in restoring the America chestnut can only be accomplished when scientists collectively combine their knowledge and talents.
“Researchers at WVU were responsible for initiating the collaborations that have resulted in this honor,” he said.
The American chestnut was among the most valuable trees in eastern North American forests, spanning from southern Ontario to northern Florida. Chestnut blight, a disease caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, eliminated the American chestnut as a canopy
“Control of the chestnut blight fungus met with consistent failure,” MacDonald explained, “but biological control using viruses that attack the fungus, coupled with classical tree breeding, were promising avenues that led to the development of the multistate project, NE-1033, in 1982.”
MacDonald, along with the late Dale Hindal, professor of plant pathology; Mark Double, research associate; and the late Dale Zinn, former dean of what is now the Davis College, were the principle organizers. The first meeting took place at Pipestem State Park in southern West Virginia in 1980.
Scholars from 16 universities, the American Chestnut Foundation, the Ontario Horticultural Research Institute, and the USDA Forest Service now collaborate on the project. Participants have published more than 1,000 research papers and received millions of dollars in competitive grants from agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the United States Departments of Agriculture and Energy, and others.
“Remarkably, in the 30 years since the first iteration of this project, there is real hope for a significant recovery of the American chestnut,” MacDonald said. “This ongoing multistate project has played a major role in effecting and documenting that recovery, while contributing outstanding basic and applied science to our knowledge base.”
A few of the many impacts of this project include the development of new blight-resistant chestnut cultivars as both timber crops and orchard trees for nuts; new strategies for planting chestnuts in harvested and disturbed ecosystems; biological viruses that provide more options for controlling pests and diseases of chestnut trees; and an aggressive program to reintroduce domestically grown chestnuts as a diversely used food source for common consumption.
This work has received significant honors before. In 1998, MacDonald received the designation of Benedum Distinguished Scholar. This award reflects a career of achievement in scholarly activity and is the highest award bestowed upon research faculty at WVU. In 1997, the team studying chestnut blight earned the Secretary’s Honor Award of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Secretary’s Honor Awards recognize outstanding contributions to agriculture, to consumers of agricultural products, and to the ability of the department to serve America. MacDonald was enshrined into the West Virginia Agricultural and Forestry Hall of Fame in 2010.
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