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Nation/World

November 1, 2013

Scientists fear renewed threat to white pine trees

CONCORD, N.H. — A fungus targeting white pine forests has mutated and poses new threats more than a century after it first hit the United States, American and Canadian scientists said yesterday.

A mutant form of white pine blister rust was discovered by Cornell University researcher Kerik Cox in 2011 in Connecticut. After two years of study, scientists now believe a large number of host plants — called ribes — previously thought to be immune to the fungus are susceptible. Ribes include valuable niche crops like black currants and gooseberries that are used in products from jam to vodka.

Spores from infected ribes are carried by wind to the pines where the fungus invades the tree, eventually killing it.

“This is a problem both for the forest industry and for growers (of ribes),” said Isabel Munck, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service based in Durham, N.H. She estimates up to half the plants previously thought to be immune have been found to be infected.

When the fungus first hit in 1909 and spread outward from New York state, a massive eradication effort including a federal ban on planting ribes, helped stem the destruction. Still, within 13 years, about half the pines in New Hampshire were infected by the fungus, which is native to Asia and is believed to have hitchhiked here on an infected pine seedling from Europe.

Philippe Tanguay, a molecular forest pathologist with the Canadian Forest Service, said a genetic fingerprint of the new discovery determined it was a mutation of an existing strain of blister rust and not a new strain.

Several states, including New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, still ban the planting of certain varieties of currants and other ribes. In light of the 2011 discovery, New Hampshire will add the previously immune plants to the banned list, and Munck said other states may follow.

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