Letter From Lisa Thomson and Brian McCarthy
Dear TACF Volunteer Leaders,
Springtime is upon us, which brings renewal and rebirth, and it is from this hopeful vantage point that we write today with an important update regarding our science program.
In 2015, Dr. Jared Westbrook was hired to take the lead of TACF’s science program. After four years of careful data analysis and collaboration with external scientific partners, Jared shared his results at our recent TACF national board meeting this past Friday to the Science and Technology Committee.
Through partnerships with HudsonAlpha and Virginia Tech, and increased fundraising to support genomic testing, TACF now has a clearer understanding of how many genes are involved in blight tolerance and the proportion of backcross trees’ genomes inherited from American chestnut. The genomics research has revealed that there are likely at least nine regions of the genome involved in blight tolerance rather than just two or three as originally hypothesized. Also, careful data analysis has revealed that some of our very best-looking trees, are not as “American” as we had hoped. The problem we optimistically set out to solve in 1983 has now become more challenging and complex.
While the news is a bit disappointing, paradoxically it actually stems from a well of new hope for the chestnut. Because of rapid advances in genomics, we now have the tools necessary to identify the specific genes in question and help us focus efforts in the chapters on the most blight-tolerant breeding lines. Furthermore, the breeding and genomics work to date positions us to identify the underlying genes and mechanisms of blight tolerance. This increased knowledge will give us better choices. Our past work has not been for naught but will instead make it clearer how we can succeed. Indeed, success built on new information and adaptive change is how science and technology grows stronger and organizations thrive. We now have increased light on our subject, where there was considerable darkness before. We can now measure what we were missing. As our recent science review performed by outside peers indicates, this will be an exciting time in our history.
We write to you today to thank you for your perseverance and patience as we continue to tackle this challenge together. Our mission is still intact—to restore the American chestnut to its native range. We are as resolute as ever to see it to fruition. We will continue to implement the 3BUR concept (Breeding, Biotechnology and Biocontrol United for Restoration, adopted by TACF in 2016) ensuring multiple pathways towards our goal.
We are putting our creative hats on now. Of one thing we are sure, and that is that the backcross breeding program and the work of our stalwart volunteers in the 16 chapters will be critical elements in the path forward. Jared, and our director of restoration Sara Fitzsimmons, as well as our three regional science coordinators, will be working closely with individual chapter leaders and the many scientists on our Board to analyze where the current program stands, and together develop new pathways to ensure we continue to make progress.
The core values of TACF will sustain us: Optimism, Patience, Science-based Decisions, Innovation, and Integrity. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, if it were easy it would not be worth doing. We need you all, and your chapter constituencies, more than ever as TACF tackles the most ambitious and complicated effort ever attempted to save a species. You will be hearing from us soon as we plan the future, especially on the task of messaging with your constituency. It is an honor to work with each of you and please accept our sincere appreciation for continuing our journey together. Meanwhile, we have attached links to more reading and information on this development, including a positive and supportive Science Review conducted by an outstanding panel of outside experts, as well as an inspiring video endorsement of our work by TACF’s Honorary Director Dr. E.O. Wilson
CEO and President
Brian C. McCarthy, Ph.D.
Board of Directors, Chair