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New study shows potential for major cuts in crop-related ammonia emissions

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Thursday, March 21, 2024

A recent study highlights a path to significantly reduce ammonia pollution from rice, wheat, and corn cultivation through better fertilizer management.Claire Asher reports for Mongabay.In short:Researchers used machine learning to analyze global ammonia emissions from staple crops, finding a potential 38% reduction through optimized fertilizer use.The study emphasizes the importance of local climate and soil conditions in determining the most effective fertilizer management practices.Climate change could increase ammonia emissions by up to 15.8% by 2100, but this rise can be offset by adapting fertilizer management to local conditions.Key quote:“Using enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and applying fertilizer deep in the soil are the most effective mitigation measures, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution.”— Yi Zheng, researcher at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology and lead author of new studyWhy this matters:Ammonia pollution arises primarily from agricultural practices. Ammonia is released into the atmosphere from the use of synthetic fertilizers and the decomposition of animal wastes. Once airborne, ammonia can travel long distances before depositing on land or water surfaces, leading to a cascade of environmental impacts.Air pollution from factory farms and growing feed crops kills an estimated 12,700 people in the U.S. a year.

A recent study highlights a path to significantly reduce ammonia pollution from rice, wheat, and corn cultivation through better fertilizer management.Claire Asher reports for Mongabay.In short:Researchers used machine learning to analyze global ammonia emissions from staple crops, finding a potential 38% reduction through optimized fertilizer use.The study emphasizes the importance of local climate and soil conditions in determining the most effective fertilizer management practices.Climate change could increase ammonia emissions by up to 15.8% by 2100, but this rise can be offset by adapting fertilizer management to local conditions.Key quote:“Using enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and applying fertilizer deep in the soil are the most effective mitigation measures, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution.”— Yi Zheng, researcher at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology and lead author of new studyWhy this matters:Ammonia pollution arises primarily from agricultural practices. Ammonia is released into the atmosphere from the use of synthetic fertilizers and the decomposition of animal wastes. Once airborne, ammonia can travel long distances before depositing on land or water surfaces, leading to a cascade of environmental impacts.Air pollution from factory farms and growing feed crops kills an estimated 12,700 people in the U.S. a year.



A recent study highlights a path to significantly reduce ammonia pollution from rice, wheat, and corn cultivation through better fertilizer management.

Claire Asher reports for Mongabay.


In short:

  • Researchers used machine learning to analyze global ammonia emissions from staple crops, finding a potential 38% reduction through optimized fertilizer use.
  • The study emphasizes the importance of local climate and soil conditions in determining the most effective fertilizer management practices.
  • Climate change could increase ammonia emissions by up to 15.8% by 2100, but this rise can be offset by adapting fertilizer management to local conditions.

Key quote:

“Using enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and applying fertilizer deep in the soil are the most effective mitigation measures, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

— Yi Zheng, researcher at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology and lead author of new study

Why this matters:

Ammonia pollution arises primarily from agricultural practices. Ammonia is released into the atmosphere from the use of synthetic fertilizers and the decomposition of animal wastes. Once airborne, ammonia can travel long distances before depositing on land or water surfaces, leading to a cascade of environmental impacts.

Air pollution from factory farms and growing feed crops kills an estimated 12,700 people in the U.S. a year.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Can CA Supreme Court strike the right balance on bail?

Bail is one part of California’s justice system that has vexed judges, lawmakers and voters alike for years.  In 2020, the bail bond industry spent millions to successfully persuade voters to overturn a law that did away with cash bail. One result: Californians spend months, sometimes years, behind bars without being convicted of anything while […]

Greg Padilla Bail Bonds signs in downtown Sacramento on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters Bail is one part of California’s justice system that has vexed judges, lawmakers and voters alike for years.  In 2020, the bail bond industry spent millions to successfully persuade voters to overturn a law that did away with cash bail. One result: Californians spend months, sometimes years, behind bars without being convicted of anything while awaiting trial, as CalMatters reported in 2021. Now, the state’s highest court will soon hear a case that once again spotlights what the goal of bail should be, and whether it is constitutional for judges to set bail amounts that far exceed what defendants can pay, explains CalMatters justice reporter Nigel Duara. In 2021, Gerald Kowalczyk purchased a $7 cheeseburger in San Mateo with a credit card he told police that he found. He was homeless and unemployed, but when he was charged with theft, a San Mateo Superior Court judge set his bail at $75,000. Unable to pay, Kowalczyk spent six months behind bars. He then pled guilty before being released, but his case has been making its way through the courts. Last year, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear it. Kowalczyk’s supporters argue that not only does a previous ruling from the high court already prohibits judges from setting unaffordable bail amounts (unless the defendants are a danger to the public or unlikely to show up for court), but also that the state constitution directs judges to prioritize “public safety and the safety of the victim” when setting bail amounts. Because Kowalczyk did not pose a threat, his exorbitant bail failed its purpose to make the public any safer, says David Ball, a Santa Clara University law professor who co-authored an amicus brief supporting Kowalczyk. Ball: “This guy was trying to buy a hamburger. There’s no horror movie that’s ever been made about the guy who bought a hamburger with somebody else’s credit card.”  But bail isn’t always about protecting the public, others say. Greg Totten, the chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association, argues that it can also be used to ensure defendants show up to court.  Totten, in an amicus brief: Eliminating the financial aspect of bail “makes the criminal justice system the proverbial revolving door and undermines the entire voter-approved purposes of the body of laws governing pretrial detention and bail in this state.” For more on the case, read Nigel’s story. Don’t miss CalMatters’ first Ideas Festival: It’s in Sacramento on June 5-6, and the full lineup is now available. It includes a broadband summit; sessions on artificial intelligence, climate, elections, homelessness and workforce development; and an exclusive IMAX screening of “Cities of the Future.” Find out more from our engagement team and buy tickets here. Other Stories You Should Know November ballot gets shorter Parents, students and supporters of parental rights rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 21, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters The list of ballot measures that California voters will decide in November keeps shrinking. Tuesday, a high-profile initiative that would have required public schools to notify parents if their children identify as transgender missed the deadline to submit enough signatures to qualify. The measure would have also banned female transgender students from girls’ sports teams and prohibited children from seeking gender-affirming health care. Protect Kids California, the group behind the measure, blamed some common reasons: Lack of money and time, worsened by an unfavorable title. It proposed the “Protect Kids of California Act,” but Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office changed it to “Restricts Rights of Transgender Youth.” In a statement, the organization said it raised nearly $200,000 and collected more than 400,000 signatures, mostly from Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. But it needed at least 546,651 to get on the ballot. The group promises to continue its efforts, and is opposing a bill introduced by the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus last week that would ban school districts statewide from imposing what the caucus says are “forced outing” policies. Protect Kids California: “While we are disappointed we didn’t meet the threshold to qualify for the ballot, we are encouraged by the amount of support from every sector of the state. We gathered more signatures for a statewide initiative than any all-volunteer effort in the history of California.” Friday, a lesser-known measure to limit private parties from using the California Environmental Quality Act to block or slow new housing development also failed to turn in enough signatures. The measure would have also capped impact fees local and state agencies could impose on housing developers. That means a month before the June 27 deadline, 12 measures are on the Nov. 5 ballot but 15 have been withdrawn or failed to qualify. More UC students strike A pro-Palestinian solidarity encampment at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on May 1, 2024. Photo by Ted Soqui for CalMatters More than a week after 2,000 student workers at UC Santa Cruz went on strike, 12,000 more at two University of California campuses joined the labor stoppage, writes CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn.  On Tuesday, UCLA and UC Davis graduate student workers, including teaching assistants, academic researchers and graders, walked off the job in response to the university’s deployment of police to sweep pro-Palestinian encampments earlier this month, as well as the arrests and campus suspensions of protestors. The 48,000-member union, UAW 4811, is also calling for the UC to pardon those who were arrested or face university discipline. The UC’s Office of the President says the strike is illegal, violating a 2022 labor agreement that included a no-strike rule. But the union disagrees, arguing that there is a legal precedent for it to strike, and that the university violated its employee rights when it summoned police. Read more about the strike in Mikhail’s story. Speaking of higher education: Haydee Barahona of CalMatters’ College Journalism Network dives into a federal grant program that helps fund resources and opportunities for Latino students attending Hispanic Serving Institutions. California is home to 172 Hispanic Serving colleges and universities, which have received $637 million since 1995.  But with 900,000 Hispanic undergraduates in California in 2022-23, experts are urging schools to create programs that can survive beyond federal grants to more meaningfully serve Latino students.  That includes Marisol Ruiz, a program coordinator for PromotorX Transformative Educators at Cal Poly Humboldt. Ruiz, who is also a tenured professor, helps train students of color to be teachers. As the program nears the end of its five-year grant, she said the program may have to become smaller. Ruiz: “We can create nice positions, but who’s doing the work, and are we going to continue that work?” Learn more about the grant program in Haydee’s story. California Voices CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: It’s deal-making time at the Capitol with two key deadlines: June 15 for the state budget and June 27 for the final list of November ballot measures. California schools will survive the state budget shortfall because of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s obsession to build rainy day funds, writes Louis Freedberg, director of the Advancing Education Success Initiative. Other things worth your time: Some stories may require a subscription to read. Some Democrats not sold on Newsom budget deficit fixes // Sacramento Bee Gov. Newsom reaches budget deal with teachers union // Politico CA eyes master plan to transform career education // EdSource DePape apologizes to Pelosi family at resentencing to 30 years // Los Angeles Times Humboldt County judge resigns, admits to improper conduct // San Francisco Chronicle Animal sedative linked to overdoses spurs call for more monitoring // KQED OpenAI forms safety/security committee as concerns mount // Los Angeles Times Plan to rescue BART from death spiral could unravel // San Francisco Chronicle Hollywood crews are unemployed, fear LA production decline // Los Angeles Times Bay Area cities suspend natural gas bans on new buildings // East Bay Times Conspiracy plea deepens mystery in San Joaquin Valley water heist // Los Angeles Times

Scientists Discover Unusual Ancient Fish 900 Miles North of Its Previous Known Range

The Australian brook lamprey (Mordacia praecox) belongs to a group of primitive jawless fish. It’s up to 15 cm long, with rows of sharp teeth....

The Australian brook lamprey, a non-parasitic jawless fish, has been found in Queensland, extending its known range. Conservation efforts face challenges due to its mistaken identity with a more common species. Scientists stress the importance of protecting this Endangered species amidst threats like habitat changes and rising sea levels. Credit: David MoffattThe Australian brook lamprey (Mordacia praecox) belongs to a group of primitive jawless fish. It’s up to 15 cm long, with rows of sharp teeth. Growing up to 15 cm in length, it has rows of sharp teeth. Unlike most lamprey species, which use their teeth to suck blood, this species is non-parasitic.As larvae, the Australian brook lamprey lives buried in the bottom of streams for around three years, filter-feeding. Its adult phase is about one year long, in which it doesn’t feed at all. Prior to this study – funded in part by the Australian Government through the National Environmental Science Program’s (NESP) Resilient Landscapes Hub – the species was widely believed to only live in a few streams along a 170 km stretch of coastline near the NSW/Victoria border.A close-up of the head of an adult male Australian brook lamprey. Credit: David MoffattThe study began after another exciting discovery: Dr Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo from the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University found the species living in streams on K’gari (Fraser Island). To unravel the mystery of Queensland lampreys, Dr Carpenter-Bundhoo teamed up with David Moffatt from DESI, who had found isolated populations of lamprey in other Queensland streams. Together, they confirmed reports of Australian brook lamprey in Queensland, including as far north as Rockhampton! With this enormous extension of its geographic range, the Australian brook lamprey becomes the only lamprey species in the world to live in truly tropical waters.Conservation Concerns“It’s quite exciting to find an Endangered species so far out of its known range, yet so close to populated areas. We expect these animals naturally occur in Queensland, and have been here for an awfully long time, but have remained hidden due to their cryptic nature,” said Mr Moffatt.The Australian brook lamprey is thought to be extinct where it was first described, in southern NSW. Its existence is thought to be threatened by sedimentation, wildfires, and human development.Perhaps the biggest threat to their conservation is that they’re very difficult to identify – this species truly faces a case of mistaken identity. For most of their life, the non-parasitic Australian brook lamprey is indistinguishable from its more common blood-sucking southern relative, the short-headed lamprey (Mordacia mordax), which has a conservation status of ‘Least Concern’.David Moffatt and Dr Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo with a small tank of Australian brook lamprey. Credit: Troy HarrisAdd to this the fact that, globally, only a few people can tell them apart.In their new Endangered Species Research article, Dr Carpenter-Bundhoo and Mr Moffatt outline the difficulties of implementing a conservation strategy for this fish and propose some solutions.The species’ conservation is especially important, given that projected sea level rises mean that many of the lowland freshwater coastal streams where Australian brook lamprey live are likely to become saltwater.With these new findings, scientists will be better equipped to conserve this unusual and Endangered species.Reference: “Expanding the known range and practical conservation issues of the Endangered Australian brook lamprey Mordacia praecox” by Luke Carpenter-Bundhoo and David B. Moffatt, 25 April 2024, Endangered Species Research.DOI: 10.3354/esr01319The surveys were partially funded by an NESP project that aims to restore ecosystem health in the Moonaboola (Mary River) catchment area of south-east Queensland and protect threatened species like the Australian lungfish, the Mary River cod and the giant barred frog.

Threatened species and chips? Other fish frequently sold as flake, Australian study finds

Scalloped hammerhead and greeneye spurdog among at-risk shark discovered in genetic testing of flake filletsGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastOne in 10 fillets of shark meat bought by Australians at fish and chip shops and markets – often labelled as flake – is from a threatened species, according to a study that has uncovered widespread mislabelling of shark sold to the public.Nine of 91 fillets were found to be either scalloped hammerhead, greeneye spurdog or school shark – all considered threatened in Australia – after scientists at Macquarie University used DNA analysis to check what they were sold.Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup Continue reading...

One in 10 fillets of shark meat bought by Australians at fish and chip shops and markets – often labelled as flake – is from a threatened species, according to a study that has uncovered widespread mislabelling of shark sold to the public.Nine of 91 fillets were found to be either scalloped hammerhead, greeneye spurdog or school shark – all considered threatened in Australia – after scientists at Macquarie University used DNA analysis to check what they were sold.Marine conservationists said Australians would be “appalled” that threatened species were allowed to be caught and sold.The study calls into question the usefulness of the voluntary Australian Fish Names Standard after finding that 40 of the 59 fillets labelled as “flake” – which the standard says should either be gummy shark or rig – were a different species altogether.Prof Adam Stow, head of the conservation genetics laboratory at the university and a co-author of the study, said: “It’s shocking and disappointing. Something needs to be done.“I hope this puts on some pressure to make the labelling standards mandatory. Most people want to know what they’re eating.”Stow said the mislabelling of “flake” was concerning because many consumers looking for more sustainably managed fish species would opt for fillets with that label.Researchers visited markets and take-aways in Canberra, Sydney, the NSW south coast, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth to buy uncooked fillets.The scalloped hammerhead. Photograph: By Wildestanimal/Getty ImagesGenetic testing revealed an array of sharks and fish being sold as “flake”, including the threatened scalloped hammerhead and greeneye spurdog, as well as mullet, barramundi, wobbegong shark and bull shark.At 19 outlets, researchers asked the retailer for more information about the fillets. Some 16 responses did not match the label, said the study, published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research.When retailers identified the species they were selling, only two of those descriptions actually matched the fillet after genetic testing.Teagan Parker Kielniacz, who led the research while at Macquarie University, said: “I asked [the retailer] if they knew what species of shark it was or if it was locally caught. More often than not, they didn’t know.skip past newsletter promotionSign up to Afternoon UpdateOur Australian afternoon update breaks down the key stories of the day, telling you what’s happening and why it mattersPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotion“Having unreliable labels takes choice away from consumers. If you want to make a sustainable choice, you can’t, because you cannot trust the labels.“As shark species around the world start to plummet, we need to be more careful about what we purchase.”Dr Leonardo Guida, a shark scientist at the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), said: “Australians would be appalled to know that our governments allow endangered species to be caught and sold for Aussies to eat. They would also be appalled to know that the fish they buy may not be what was written on the label.”AMCS advised consumers not to buy flake because while gummy shark numbers were thought to be stable, “fishing for them puts threatened school shark at risk”, Guida said.The two fillets of greeneye spurdog – a deepwater species unique to Australia – were bought in Victoria. Guida said NSW was the only jurisdiction in Australia where the species was allowed to be kept when caught.He said NSW fishing records showed only 69kg of greeneye spurdog was caught in 2019, the year the samples were collected, compared with about 2,100 tonnes of shark caught and sold annually in south-east Australia.“If fishing rules are being followed, the chance of finding endangered greeneye spurdog in a fish retailer are miniscule. Finding greeneye spurdog in the 91 samples collected across the country is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Guida said.“The study suggests greeneye spurdog is being caught in NSW and shipped to Victoria or, even worse, illegal fishing is happening in Australia.”AMCS and Humane Society International have released a report listing a range of changes to fishing rules they say would better protect Australia’s native sharks.The two conservation groups have nominated Greeneye spurdog for protection under Australian environmental law.The species, unique to Australia, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.A university-led study last year found widespread mislabelling of shark at seafood outlets in South Australia.Guardian Australia has approached the fisheries minister, Murray Watt, for comment.

What the spate of wolf poisonings says about Oregon’s co-existence with wolves, Beat Check podcast

Poisoning has emerged as one of the most common tools used to target wolves in Oregon. Roblyn Brown, wolf program coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, talked on Beat Check about the poisonings, the state's stagnant wolf population and how to bridge the divide between people who love wolves and those who want them gone.

In recent years, people have killed increasingly larger numbers of wolves in Oregon as the animals have rebounded in the state.And poisoning has emerged as one of the most common tools used to target wolves – an alarming trend, Oregon wildlife officials say. Since 2015, poisoning has killed 19 wolves in Wallowa, Union, Baker and Umatilla counties, on both private and public land.The latest case, announced earlier this month by Oregon State Police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, involves three wolves poisoned in February in the Imnaha River drainage in northeastern Oregon. The source of the poison: a cow carcass placed by someone in a creek at the bottom of the timber canyon.The poisoning trend is concerning, wildlife officials say, because a single poison trap can kill multiple wolves and countless other animals and birds, including domestic dogs. Near the poisoned cow carcass, officials also found two dead golden eagles, a coyote, a mountain lion and several birds.Roblyn Brown, wolf program coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, talked on Beat Check about the poisonings, what they mean in the context of Oregon’s stagnant wolf population and how to bridge the divide between people who love wolves and those who want them gone.Brown said as wolves expand their territory – and increasingly use areas that overlap with those used by people – conflicts are bound to intensify. Oregon currently has 178 wolves, with most living in eastern Oregon.“We might be forced to acknowledge that wolf management is going to be harder in Oregon than it is in some areas of the northern Rocky Mountains because Oregon has a higher human population and less space,” Brown said. “We have high prey densities of elk and deer, which allows for a large wolf population, but we also have fewer large wilderness areas, higher road density and a higher overlap of wolf territories with livestock.”It’s hard to catch the people who kill wolves because the crimes they commit happen in remote areas and there’s a code of silence in rural communities when it comes to killing wolves, Brown said. There have been no convictions to date in any of the wolf poisoning cases, and only four people have been prosecuted in court for shooting wolves illegally in Oregon, she said.Environmental groups say poaching, poisoning and other forms of intentional killing of wolves could undermine the state’s conservation goals. And they say the state isn’t setting a good example by sanctioning the legal killing of wolves. State wildlife managers or ranchers can kill wolves that chronically attack livestock or that are caught in the act of attacking or chasing livestock or working dogs.The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association has said it does not condone poaching or other illegal killing of wolves. The group believes the state needs to do more to help offset the financial impact and emotional toll of wolf attacks on ranchers. In 2023, there were a total of 73 attacks on livestock by wolves, down from 76 in 2022.Brown said ranchers and environmentalists need to work together on wolf conservation. To that end, she said, minimizing livestock conflicts and reducing livestock losses is the most important part of Oregon’s wolf conservation plan. Under that plan, ranchers are compensated for confirmed and probable livestock losses to wolves and they’re also paid for using preventive measures to deter the animals.She also encouraged Oregon residents to learn more about wolves and their incredible stories of dispersal – some travel thousands of miles to look for a new mate. Last year, one of Oregon’s radio-collared wolves traveled more than 4,500 miles, a distance equal to traveling from Oregon to Florida and back.“Wolves are amazing animals,” she said. “They’re just one more wildlife species trying to make a living out there on the landscape. Wolves are not scary, bloodthirsty demons.”The Oregon State Police asks anyone with information about the wolf poisonings to call the Turn In Poachers program hotline: 1-800-452-7888. The program offers hefty cash rewards for information leading to an arrest. Callers to the hotline can remain anonymous.People in Oregon also can report wolf sightings to help establish where wolves roam and take a quiz to test their coyote versus wolf identification skills.Wondering what to do if you encounter a wolf? There’s no need to panic.— Gosia Wozniacka covers environmental justice, climate change, the clean energy transition and other environmental issues. Reach her at gwozniacka@oregonian.com or 971-421-3154.Read more about wolves and the conflict linked to their conservation:Investigators seek public’s help in investigation of wildlife poisoning in Wallowa CountyWolf killings in Oregon at all-time high while population remains stagnantTo some Oregonians, moving wolves to Colorado just shifts the problem and the painBiden administration brings back threatened species protections helping Oregon wolves, wolverines and spotted owls

The Problem With Darling 58

The fight to save America’s iconic tree has become a civil war.

A young chestnut tree at a research farm in Virginia. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images For the past two decades, Sara Fern Fitzsimmons has raised seedlings of the American chestnut in research orchards along the Eastern Seaboard, keeping them fed and hydrated and charting their growth. At the turn of the 20th century, the “redwoods of the East” dominated forests with their towering trunks, accounting for an estimated one in every four trees from southern Maine to northern Florida. They fueled a major timber industry, and their nuts were a vital source of food for both livestock and countless families. As one historian wrote, the tree “was possibly the single most important natural resource of the Appalachians.” Last fall, Fitzsimmons noticed some of the baby trees seemed small for their age, with weak roots and curling leaves. Worse, they were getting sick as a cankerous orange fungus ate its way out of their trunks, suffering with a disease that decimated the species and to which the trees had been genetically modified to resist. More than a few saplings died. So did the hope of rescuing the American chestnut tree from the point of near extinction, at least for now. A breakthrough in genetic engineering was intended to bring them back and transform the science of species restoration while potentially netting its inventors millions of dollars and wide acclaim. Instead, a mix-up in the lab has sparked a veritable civil war in the niche conservation community. For the chestnut evangelists who’ve devoted years to restoration efforts, the fight to save the tree has always been personal. Now this fight is, too, amid accusations that the scientists who invented the GMO tree covered up the mistake as they sought federal approval and pursued potentially lucrative deals to sell their creation. Tree world, says Andy Newhouse, director of the lab that invented the promised savior of the chestnut tree, “is definitely a little, little bubble. And inside that bubble, there’s a lot going on.” In 1904, Herman W. Merkel, a forester at the Bronx Zoo, noticed chestnuts near the park’s perimeter were speckled with a strange orange fungus. Merkel called in William A. Murrill, a mycologist at the New York Botanical Garden, and the two men spent the next year identifying a fungus now known as Cryphonectria parasitica, imported on ornamental Asian chestnut trees. The blight enters via small wounds in the bark made by weather or insects and eats its way through before the trunk erupts open with a warty canker full of “yellowish-brown fruiting pustules,” which release spores to infect nearby trees, wrote Murrill. “No treatment can be suggested except the rigorous use of the pruning knife,” he determined. “The disease seems destined to run its course, as epidemics usually do.” The blight ran through forests like a line of fire, killing close to 4 billion trees by 1940, and it still hasn’t burned out: When the viable chestnut roots below ground send up new shoots, they only live a decade or so before the fungus kills them, too. A small, determined cohort of scientists, growers, and tree lovers refused to accept the end of the chestnut epoch, and in the 1980s, two parallel rescue efforts began. At a research farm in southwestern Virginia, growers working with the nascent American Chestnut Foundation began a breeding program, hypothesizing that crossing American chestnuts with their Chinese cousins would confer the latter’s resistance to Cryphonectria parasitica. Infected Chinese chestnuts, having evolved alongside the blight, simply wall it off and keep on growing. Subsequent “back-crossing” of the resulting hybrids over multiple generations aimed to create blight-tolerant trees that had all the characteristics of the American original. A family and a towering chestnut tree in the Great Smoky Mountains, 1920. Photo: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Around the same time, an engineer named Herb F. Darling Jr. found some surviving wild chestnuts on his family’s land in western New York’s Zoar Valley. He thought they might provide the basis for a much quicker solution: transgenics — inserting one organism’s DNA into another — to create a genetically modified tree. When he approached the foundation for support, it turned him away: Its official position was staunchly anti-GMO. It’s an opinion much of the conservation community has long shared. The introduction of farm GMOs like Monsanto’s “Roundup-ready” crops has increased agricultural production, but it has also created new threats to biodiversity and drastically increased usage of the trademark herbicide. Since their inception, those commercial GMOs have been deployed with an eye toward containment. Darling was proposing using the technology much differently. “For conservation, you want it to spread,” says Will Pitt, the foundation’s current president and CEO; that only alarmed foundation leadership further. So instead, Darling started his own organization and partnered with Bill Powell and Chuck Maynard, geneticists at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York. Powell went on to identify an enzyme in wheat plants — oxalate oxidase, or OxO — that protects them from oxalic acid, the same compound Cryphonectria parasitica produces to kill chestnuts. He would spend the next several years inserting an OxO-producing wheat gene into different places along the chestnut genome, creating iteration after iteration of what he dubbed the “Darling” line after Herb, his benefactor. In 2012, he landed on a version that seemed to convey total blight resistance without changing the American character of the trees. He dubbed the revelatory version Darling 58. After Powell and Maynard officially published their findings in 2013, there was “a big shift” in the chestnut community, says Newhouse, who began working on Darling 58 at ESF. Supporters clamored to know when they could get seeds to plant. The foundation’s hybridization plan had produced only marginal success, and it found blight resistance more genetically complicated than expected. It announced its full support for the transgenic program and ESF, and threw its weight behind applications asking the federal government to deregulate Darling 58, allowing it to be planted, basically, anywhere and by anyone. The foundation became ESF’s primary scientific partner and financial backer, funneling the lab annual donations in the six figures. With Darling 58’s blight-resistance properties proven in the lab, and seedlings planted at carefully monitored test sites, it was just a matter of getting the government to deregulate Powell’s creation. That would make it the first GMO designed for conservation and approved for release into wild ecosystems. The move would open a fresh chapter of species-restoration science and pave the way for transgenic solutions for all manner of endangered plants and animals. “They’re all kind of lined up behind this,” says Pitt. In 2022, Powell was diagnosed with colon cancer and given a two-year prognosis. At the same time, he and Newhouse, his longtime protégé, began meeting with American Castanea, a newly formed company whose founders saw a huge opportunity in meeting the intense demand for seedlings they expected to follow deregulation. American Castanea would agree to pay ESF for distribution rights to sell millions of transgenic seedlings worth millions of dollars. The foundation, however, balked at the potential involvement of a for-profit company after repeated insistence from Powell that rights to Darling 58 would remain in the public domain. Internally, the leadership referred to Powell’s deal with American Castanea as “the betrayal.” They met with SUNY leadership, threatening to dissolve the partnership if the deal was made official. Soon after, Newhouse says, he was “uninvited” from the foundation’s annual meeting. “That was definitely a big red flag.” Meanwhile, the foundation’s scientists were growing concerned at Darling 58 test sites. Many of the trees seemed stunted and unhealthy. Their leaves were browning and folding in on themselves, and a surprising number were dying, succumbing to the fungal blight they should have been able to resist. The scientists at the foundation raised their concerns with Newhouse and ESF and pushed for the lab’s newest research about the performance of Darling 58. What information they received felt incomplete, and some began to wonder if ESF was hiding something. “We have weekly science calls they’ve been on since 2019,” says Sarah Fern Fitzsimmons, the foundation’s chief conservation officer. “There’s a history of not being transparent with data. I look back through the reports they compiled for us for the grants we gave them, and everything’s awesome: It’s cherry-picking the good and not letting on that anything was amiss at all.” Last spring, while foundation scientists in the field were wondering what could be wrong with the trees, Thomas Klak, an environmental-science professor at the University of New England in Portland, Maine, was struggling to produce Darling 58 plants with two copies of the OxO gene. He reached out to Ek Han Tan, a geneticist at the University of Maine who developed a test to analyze their genome. “The line that Tom has been using — that everyone has been using — was supposedly derived from Darling 58, and there was a good genetic map of the transgene on chromosome seven,” Tan says. But when he couldn’t find that gene on any of Klak’s samples, he started to wonder if they all might have the wrong tree. Eventually, Tan found the trees’ OxO gene on chromosome four — the insertion point for an earlier transgenic iteration called Darling 54. For the past decade, the many scientists trying to save the chestnut had been working with the wrong tree. Functionally, Darling 58, the tree touted as the great hope of the chestnut and the next frontier in species restoration, did not exist. In October 2023, Klak and Tan broke the news to Newhouse and his ESF colleagues. Newhouse says ESF began working to confirm, as initial tests weren’t “entirely consistent” with the hypothesis that the trees were Darling 54. Nearly a month later, after following up repeatedly with the ESF team, Tan looped in the foundation’s science director. It was the first the foundation had heard of the major mix-up. Fitzsimmons says ESF chalked it up to mistaken identity when the first generation of transgenic clone trees were made. “You think you’re getting pollen from a Darling 58 tree, but you actually got it from Darling 54,” she says. “So, you take that pollen and put it on chestnuts in the field and you assume everything subsequently will be 58. But everything derived from that initial pollination.” Vasiliy Lakoba, director of research, lifts a petri dish of the fungus that causes blight at the American Chestnut Foundation’s research farm in Meadowview, Virginia. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images Six days after Tan alerted the foundation, on November 12, Powell died. He never knew that he’d spent years planting the wrong tree, Newhouse says. By this point, the partnership he’d forged between ESF and the foundation was collapsing over his creation. ESF, though, was undeterred by the startling discovery about Darling 58 and announced a $636,000 grant from the USDA to support studies of the “performance of Darling 58 chestnut trees as they start to mature in real-world conditions,” but made no announcement about Klak and Tan’s discovery. It forged ahead with getting approval from the FDA and EPA as well. On December 8, the foundation decided to blow the whistle. It issued a press release calling the Darling trees “unsuitable as the basis for species restoration,” withdrawing support for deregulation, and declining to further fund the line’s development. The potential deal with American Castanea was dead. “To this day, we’ve never heard anything directly from ESF,” says Pitt, the American Chestnut Foundation’s president. If Tan and Klak hadn’t shared their findings, Pitt wonders if ESF ever would have “told us, told the public, told anyone.” “As a nonprofit organization, we can’t hide things from our members or the public. If we wouldn’t have brought this out, we would be complicit with a cover-up.” Pitt estimates the foundation has funneled close to $3 million to ESF over the last decade. Given that, the pending deregulation applications, the USDA grant, and rumors of an additional million dollars promised to ESF upon deregulation from another donor, he says there were “more than a million reasons” for ESF to sweep the error under the rug. “The stakes are extremely high: If this was successful, ESF would be world-renowned.” It’s necessary to demonstrate success, Newhouse concedes, “in order to keep doing the research. But you don’t want to overstate, and that’s the tightrope.” He maintains that any delay was because ESF was doing its own testing on the trees. “It wasn’t that we sat on things or tried to cover them up,” he says. “We wanted to be sure of what we had and not share speculative information.” But Pitt recalls a conversation in the fall — before the Darling revelation — where Newhouse and other ESF leadership were discussing plans to establish a major research institute. “I said, maybe the problem is we have two different goals,” Pitt recounts. “If you’re successful, you’re going to build a bigger forestry institute. If I’m successful, I’m going to be out of a job. That’s what success looks like to me; that I’m no longer needed. That is a very different way of looking at the world.” Newhouse has repeatedly said the mix-up is little more than a naming error. While Darling 54 doesn’t appear to offer the same blight resistance Darling 58 promised, it might still be able to tolerate the fungus a bit longer than an entirely wild American tree. Though Newhouse concedes it’s not the tree that’ll rescue the species, it’s still “promising,” he says, and ESF is forging ahead with deregulation efforts. He has provided updated data to the USDA and said he doesn’t think the applications should be drastically affected. “The series of environmental tests we’ve done were actually done with Darling 54; some knowingly, and some when we thought it was 58,” he said. “We’ve seen that it’s not detrimental, it’s not harmful to other organisms.” Fitzsimmons is not so sure. In addition to evidence of lower-than-expected blight resistance, Darling 54’s chromosome tweak causes the deletion of more than 1,000 DNA base pairs, the ultimate effect of which is hard to know. “It’s not something you want to deploy into a restoration population,” she says. For a group of people who have dedicated decades to the American chestnut’s rescue, the last few months have been an emotional tumult. “It’s heartbreaking that we’re not further along,” Pitt says. “This wasn’t the silver bullet, but we thought it was a big step.” Sign Up for the Intelligencer Newsletter Daily news about the politics, business, and technology shaping our world.

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