Want to be part of rescuing the American chestnut tree? Get information at The American Chestnut Foundation: www.acf.org
Dr. Hill Craddock is on a crusade that has lasted about 30 years—rescue the American chestnut tree.
Not that the species has totally disappeared, but fungi brought over on Asian chestnuts in the early 1900s has wiped out billions of trees. There are still millions of American chestnuts left, but they’re sterile, incapable of reproducing. Extinction is a given if steps aren’t taken.
“The American chestnut is functionally extinct but it’s not all-the-way, all-the-way extinct,” says Craddock, a UC Foundation Robert M. Davenport Professor of biology, geology and environmental science.
“The thing I want to emphasize is conservation, the importance of conservation. If you understand that extinction is permanent and it’s a disaster we need to do what we can now to preserve rare species and endangered species.”
A few months ago, Craddock brought his chestnut passion to Bill Nye Saves the World, the Netflix series hosted by the “Science Guy.” On the episode titled “Extinction: Why All Our Friends Are Dying,” Craddock was on a panel discussion with Dr. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, and comedian Nazeem Hussain.
After flying to Los Angeles, Craddock spent about eight hours in a TV studio and ended up with a bit more than a minute of face time on the 30-minute show. In those seconds, he explained how the American chestnut population is decimated and how it can be saved through genetic engineering and plant-breeding techniques.
As he spoke, he was interrupted by comic Hussain, who asked why Craddock was concentrating on saving a tree if it was possible to bring back a “pterodactyl” or “saber-tooth tiger.”
“He wants to ride a pterodactyl. He wants us to bring back a sabertooth tiger because they’re cool. They’re more cool than chestnut trees,” Craddock says with a verbal shrug.
“De-extincting” a saber-toothed tiger—or any extinct species—is impossible, Craddock says.
“There’s no such thing as de-extinction,” he says. “Extinction is permanent and it’s part of evolution.”
On Bill Nye Saves the World, Shapiro explained that (despite the title of her book), you can’t actually bring back an extinct species by cloning it with DNA found in its fossils.
“Once something is gone, it’s gone forever,” Shapiro said.
And just a head’s up, Craddock says: Jurassic Park isn’t real.
“The risk is that people think we can bring back the dinosaurs,” he says. “Somehow they’re going to think, ‘Oh, it’s not such a big deal. If we lose a species we can just de-extinct it.’ That’s just not how it works.”