April 22 (Reuters) - A day before Earth Day, retired forester Rex Mann watched as scientists signed an agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina to allow for the eventual planting of genetically engineered American chestnut trees on tribal land.
Mann, who has heard countless stories about the American chestnut tree that once dominated the Appalachia region, was emotional as he witnessed the signing.
"My dad loved the tree... and he understood what it meant to the way of life of these people in the mountains," the 76-year-old from Kentucky said. "That way of life died with the tree."
In the early 20th century, a blight is believed to have wiped out some four billion chestnut trees that once grew across the eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia. Now, American chestnut advocates, like Mann, and a small network of scientists are hoping to restore the trees by genetically engineering a blight-resistant tree.
Several experiments have been tried over the years, but so far scientists believe the greatest promise comes from a transgenic tree – engineered with a gene from wheat – known as Darling 58. They also hope that this initiative will encourage similar projects for other species.
"There's a number of species where invasive insects and pathogens have been imported into this country," said Jared Westbrook, director of science at the American Chestnut Foundation.
"All the tools that we're using – the breeding, the biotechnology, the genomics... could be used as a kind of a model for these other tree species."
Currently scientists are not allowed to grow transgenic trees outside of private greenhouses. The U.S. government is reviewing the researchers' request for deregulation status, which would allow the scientists to plant the trees in forests.
The project is not without opponents. Several organizations have signed on to the Campaign to Stop GE (Genetically Engineered) Trees.
They argue that introducing such trees into the ecosystem could have unintended consequences for other plant and animal species.
But Mann thinks it is a way of giving back to the Earth.
"The stark choice we face is either embrace this cutting-edge science and use it wisely or bid our native forests goodbye, and for the sake of our grandkids, we can't afford to do that," he said.
(Reporting by Vanessa Johnston; Editing by Aurora Ellis)
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