When we talk about an “old chestnut,” we usually mean a familiar story—sometimes one that’s been told so often that que has become stale, but also possibly one that’s ready and reliable.

De qualsevol manera, the phrase suggests a kind of sturdiness and permanence, perhaps like an old chestnut tree that’s always there.

Except that these days, hi ha gairebé no such thing as an old chestnut tree en the eastern Estats Units. Virtually all of them have succumbed to a deadly disease. Per alguns pressuposts, four billion have perished. The only thing that has the potential to bring them back is biotechnology.

Eight years ago, I wrote about the plight of the chestnut trees en un columna for the Global Farmer Network. I described chestnuts as an essential part of Italian-American culture: In my family, we always roasted them for Christmas and on other holidays. The wood from the trees also made beautiful furniture. I’m no woodworker, but my grandfather was and chestnut trees are an excellent source of hardwood.

Una generació o dos fa, chestnut trees were a common feature of the American landscape. They would grow big and tall, with thick trunks and branches that could reach a hundred feet into the air. The trees that produced the delicious nuts and gorgeous wood grew in the wild as well as under cultivation.

Then came the blight. A fungus from Asia swept through our continent’s population of chestnuts. Avui, it’s almost impossible to find chestnut trees. Fa uns quants anys, I tried to grow a couple near my house in New Jersey. One died immediately. The other lasted a few years and then it died, massa. Even when we care for them, we can’t seem to keep them alive.

My column pointed out the dire challenges facing the chestnut tree, but also expressed hope that modern science might find a solution.

Avui, it looks like we may have one. Científics have discovered a fungus-fighting enzyme that occurs in all grain crops as well as some fruits. Through an initiative sponsored by the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project a the State University of New York, they’ve figured out how to take a gene that produces this enzyme from bread wheat and transplant it into chestnut trees.

Això technique is called modificació genètica and it’s the same one that has become a staple of modern food production, helping farmers fight weeds and pests and allowing them to grow more food on less land than ever before. We call these cultius OMG, for “genetically modified organisms,” but it may make more sense to introduce a companion name: GROs, as in “genetically rescued organisms.”

I learned this term from Hank Campbell, who wrote an article d'opinió about chestnuts in the Wall Street Journal in June. His own website, Ciència 2.0, also has covered the plight of chestnut trees and the ways in which science can save them.

GROs have been with us for a while. They’ve already saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from the ring-spot virus. Ara we’re applying this same method to another plant whose situation has become desperate.

For those who worry that there’s something “unnatural” about this approach, Campbell ofertes this useful way of thinking about GRO chestnuts: “What could be more natural than letting nature resist nature? És 99.999 percent identical to wild American chestnuts, except four billion of these won’t die.”

That sounds like a good deal to me. We might be wise to think about other trees and plants que could become GROs. Elm trees may be candidates. Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by bark beetles, has ravaged them as well. This affliction’s acronym says it all: DED.

Jo no sé sobre vostè, but I prefer GRO trees to DED ones.

We can continue to watch chestnut trees and other species vanish, or we can choose a different future. Afortunadament, the federal government is trying to modernize the regulations that govern GROs. Al gener, President Trump issued an executive order that may spur innovations—and make it easier for scientists to defeat diseases and rescue trees.

Un dia, Potser, we’ll be able to tell old chestnuts about how we saved the chestnuts.