Partner Profile - The American Chestnut Foundation, Pennsylvania Chapter

Posted: October 7, 2017

Summer/Fall 2017, Issue No. 101

Do you know that there are American chestnut seed orchards at The Arboretum at Penn State?  The orchards are part of The American Chestnut Foundation’s (TACF) scientific research and breeding program.  TACF, founded in 1983, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) to its native forests.  Our department’s work in chestnut research began one year earlier, in 1982, when, as the School of Forest Resources, we entered into a multi-state chestnut genetics research project with a consortium of other universities.

The American chestnut—which once grew throughout eastern North America and was best known for its fruit and wood—was destroyed in the early 1900s by an introduced fungus first observed in New York City.  The blight wounds the trunks and branches, and eventually kills the upper portions of the trees.  Tree roots are not affected by the blight; therefore, wild American chestnuts can survive as stump sprouts.

In contrast, the Chinese chestnut is blight-resistant.  But for many reasons the Chinese chestnut is not suitable as a “replacement” for our native species in natural forest stands.  By crossing an American chestnut tree with a Chinese chestnut tree, a hybrid chestnut strain that carries genes for blight resistance can be created.  By repeatedly backcrossing a hybrid with an American chestnut, the end goal is to create a blight-resistant chestnut tree that retains as many American chestnut traits as possible.  

On June 24, 2002, a fifth generation of backcrossed trees (B3F2)—in the form of six-inch seedlings—was planted at the Arboretum.  The planting coincided with the signing of a memorandum of understanding by representatives of The American Chestnut Foundation, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and The Arboretum at Penn State.  Dr. Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology, was the master of ceremonies at the event.  Other speakers included Marshal Case, executive director of TACF; Dr. Robert Steele, dean of the College of Ag Sciences; and John Oliver, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Two key factors in the agreement included creating the chestnut research orchard on ten acres of the Arboretum and hiring staff who would be funded by TACF and housed by Penn State.

Soon after, in January 2003, Sara Fern Fitzsimmons was hired to manage the chestnut breeding program.  She had experience with the American chestnut when, as a master’s student at Duke University, she was selected through the Stanback Foundation to work as a summer 2000 intern with the TACF Pennsylvania Chapter (PA-TACF).

Fitzsimmons continues to be housed in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management today and is still funded jointly by TACF and PA-TACF.  She oversees the chestnut research program, and serves as a contact for chestnut growers and researchers across a seven-state region throughout the mid-Atlantic and into the Midwest.  She is also currently enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Penn State.  “I am hopeful that my research and professional work will facilitate long-term conservation and restoration of native tree species at risk from exotic pests and diseases,” she explains.

Two other paid positions that are part of the current partnership are filled by Stephen Hoy, a Penn State Mont Alto Forest Technology graduate, who serves as orchard manager, and Jean Najjar who serves as chapter administrator, managing office operations.  Najjar is also a Penn State alum (1985, Plant Science) and she completed a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Colorado.

In the person of Dr. Kim Steiner, Penn State has been significantly involved in the management and operation of TACF.  Steiner served as vice-chair of the board of directors for six years and chairman of the board for three (2013-2015).  He has since been confirmed by the board as senior science adviser and a continuing member of the executive committee.  During his tenure as chairman, he led a restructuring of the board and the bylaws that took TACF to the “next level” as an organization.  Lisa Thomson was hired as president and CEO, and Dr. Jared Westbrook was hired as quantitative and molecular geneticist.  Both began working with TACF in January 2015.  “A striking fact about the national search to fill these two positions is the quality of applicants that we attracted,” says Steiner. “This is a testament to both the achievements of the TACF staff and volunteers and to the reputation of the program.”

Arboretum Orchard Tour


Arboretum Chestnut Orchard Tour,
TACF 2015



Much of the partnership’s work is done by volunteers.  In May 2016 alone, volunteers planted more than 2,000 chestnut seedlings at the Arboretum.  Many of the plants had been prepped in January by volunteers who worked in the greenhouse at the Forest Resources Lab—they filled pots with soil, planted nuts, and labeled seed lots.  Volunteers also play a vital role in many other facets of the restoration work.  They are ambassadors, representing TACF at community events; educators, giving presentations and sharing the story of the American chestnut with interested groups; and office workers, preparing newsletters for mailing.

Research is a significant component of the American chestnut restoration efforts, and some of that research is made possible by the partnership.  In spring 2002, with funding from TACF, Dr. John Carlson, professor of molecular genetics and director of the Schatz Center for Tree Molecular Genetics, began his first project on developing DNA-based methods to compare blight-resistant and blight-susceptible trees in the TACF breeding program. 

Chestnut DNA Workshop


DNA Isolation Workshop, TACF 2015




Subsequently, the Schatz Center played an important role in a large multi-institution project—from 2006 to 2009 and funded by the National Science Foundation—to develop genomics-based tools for breeding American and Chinese chestnut and related tree species, including new genetic maps and candidate genes for blight resistance.  These molecular genetics tools and advances in the TACF breeding program led to the Forest Health Initiative in 2009, supporting several projects aimed at assisting the TACF, including funding for the Carlson lab to completely sequence the Chinese chestnut genome.  That genome was first released to the public in January 2014. The genomics tools are now being incorporated into TACF’s breeding program for selecting the best trees—those with the most blight resistance and with the most American chestnut character—when they are still seedlings.  This will save a great deal of time and expense and enable a much larger number of progeny to be screened.  Without the genomic tools, trees in the breeding program need to be cared for until they are big enough to inoculate and determine resistance—usually five or six years after germination.

Another common goal of TACF and the university is knowledge transfer.  Most recently, in fall 2015, the TACF partnered with Penn State Mont Alto’s Schatz Tree Genetics Colloquium and the Schatz Center for Tree Molecular Genetics to host a workshop on “Integrating Genomics Tools in American Chestnut Restoration.” Held at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, October 23-24, the workshop offered participants the opportunity to examine advances in chestnut genetics and genomics with researchers from around the world, to learn how to extract DNA and use the chestnut genome website, and to tour the highly-resistant American chestnuts in the Arboretum’s orchards.  In conjunction with the TACF annual meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Goreham proclaimed October 23, 2015 as American Chestnut Day in State College, and Governor Thomas Wolf proclaimed October 24, 2015, as American Chestnut Day in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Chestnut research was also a key component of the first Schatz Tree Genetics Colloquium, held at Penn State Mont Alto in April 2007.  Endowed by Louis W. Schatz, a 1934 alumnus of Penn State Mont Alto, the colloquium takes place every two years.



Undergraduate student Ethan Mansfield (right) assists Orchard Manager Stephen Hoy.





The partnership continues to provide internship opportunities, primarily for undergraduate students. Ethan Mansfield worked on a variety of PA-TACF projects for 16 months, and assisted the Schatz Center with its field sites as well.  Mansfield completed a B.S. degree in Forest Ecosystem Management (FOREM) in May 2016.  He is also a Penn State Mont Alto Forest Technology graduate, spring 2014.  “My work with TACF was a rewarding experience,” says Mansfield. “My mentor, Steve Hoy, guided me in properly managing the orchard.  This included weed control, tree selection, and safe equipment operations.  I also learned about insect management, proper planting methods, and safe watering techniques, all of which are integral parts of maintaining a healthy growing stock.”

Marlin Graham, a FOREM senior in the Forest Management option, worked with PA-TACF in summer 2016.  “Most of the research plots were planted before I started working, and some of the surviving chestnuts were already 15+ years old,” noted Graham. “It was encouraging to see blighted trees get so large when it’s rare to see anything larger than a sapling in the forest!”

Learn more about the work of TACF at Penn State and elsewhere online. You may also choose to link directly to PA-TACF, or follow the organization on Facebook