Students fight to save the American chestnut
Since 1904 the American chestnut has fought against the chestnut blight, an Asian fungus. It’s killed off billions of trees and, according to the American Chestnut Foundation, it is the largest ecological disaster of the 20th century. Now students in the Olympic High School B-3 Summer Program are working to prevent the extinction of the American chestnut tree. The B-3 program focuses on biotechnology, biodiversity and bioinformatics in the School of Biotechnology, Health & Public Administration at Olympic. Students are provided the skills and equipment to help establish a genetic marker and develop a disease-resistant tree.

“When I really think about it, I’m dumbfounded at the thought of possibly saving an endangered tree,” said Jayden Walsh, a rising senior.  

Scientist Dr. Jennifer Weller works with Olympic science teachers Jeanne Smith and Erica Putnam in the B-3 program. She said that because that there isn’t a lot of competition for the American chestnut project, students have a chance to become more engaged and perhaps directly affect forests.

“This project allows students to combine modern techniques with actual breeding. They are merging perspectives,” said Weller, a bioinformatics professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

The American chestnut was once a dominant forest tree throughout the East Coast, according to the American Chestnut Foundation. Chestnuts were a major food source for wildlife and families living within the tree’s range. They were also a cash crop, with wagons of nuts sold at Christmas in cities like New York and Philadelphia. First discovered in New York City in 1904, the blight spread quickly. By 1950, approximately four billion trees had been destroyed by blight.

“We’re trying to find genes from the Chinese chestnut in order to help the American chestnut resist the blight fungus,” rising senior Ashley Westbrook explained. “Here, I’m doing something to help the world. It’s about saving trees.”

Each Friday, the class travels to different forests throughout North Carolina, including Crowder’s Mountain where they collect leaf samples and gain field-biology experience. Monday through Thursday, students are in the school’s lab extracting DNA, producing copies and separating fragments. This diagnostic work helps students get one step closer to finding a solution.

“B-3 introduced me to skills more sophisticated in the DNA purification process,” said Jayden. “This is a chance you’re not going to get anywhere else.”

During the 2012-2013 school year, Jayden interned with Weller. He said he learned more details about trial and error and how the B-3 program could get better results for the American chestnut.

Next school year, some of the B-3 students will join Weller in her research lab at UNC Charlotte, giving them more hands-on experience and an opportunity to work with more modern molecular biology equipment.

Both Jayden and Ashley hope to continue their education in science. Jayden plans to become a biomedical engineer and Ashley a neonatal nurse.

Learn more about the B-3 Summer Program and how to get involved in the fight against chestnut blight.