September 28, 2013
Use Genetic Engineering To Save Endangered Species?

Carl Zimmer takes a look at a discussion among conservation biologists about whether to transfer adaptive genes into endangered species.

The scientists call wildlife genetic engineering “facilitated adaptation.” While they’re ready to give it a name, they don’t want to launch into it without a lot of consideration, however. They want to make sure facilitated adaptation doesn’t cause harm to species that are already on the brink of extinction. Genes often carry out more than one function, and so even if an imported gene has one beneficial effect, it might have others that are dangerous.

This isn't some futuristic idea. The American chestnut is getting saved from an invasive blight by transfering a protective gene from another species. A similar effort is being made to save orange trees in Florida. Also, as Carl points out, the panthers in Florida became so few in number and inbred that Texas panthers were brought in to increase their genetic diversity.

Idaho State University prof Michael Thomas and co-authors think we should start seriously discussing genetic engineering of endangered species because the techniques used will become more powerful.

Thomas, in the ISU Department of Biological Sciences, and coauthors note that 15 to 40 percent of animal species are predicted to become extinct by 2050. In a Comment piece "Gene Tweaking for Conservation" appearing in Nature, those authors say that it is just a matter of time before conservationists apply the genetic engineering approach to safeguard biodiversity because the techniques used to transfer genetic material are becoming more sophisticated.

Thomas worries that less effort will be put into other measures aimed at saving species if genetic engineering is used. But I think the forces wrecking habitats (e.g. population growth, industrialization) are unstoppable and even with genetic engineering we will only be able to make small impacts on species extinctions. When whole habitats are wiped out a species can end up with no place left to live.

"Facilitated adaptation might be less logistically challenging than moving entire populations, and less fraught with ecological and socio-economic complications — relocation could introduce harmful invasive species, for example, or unleash outbreaks of disease.”

Population movement can only work if a suitable destination exists. For most endangered species that is not the case.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 September 28 12:06 PM 

Josh Freiheit said at September 30, 2013 9:34 AM:

This absurd reverence for "species" is a decadent tendency for modern intellectuals who have nothing truly important to do with themselves. It is a grand cause, a great abstraction like mother Gaia or the belief in some ideal climate or ecology free from the taint of men.

Not surprised that Zimmer would get caught up in the grand fantasy scheme.

DdR said at September 30, 2013 11:36 AM:

Thanks Randall for addressing genetic engineering to save species; it's fascinating and often overlooked.

I believe the writer "destructure" talked a few months ago about how Michel Gros bananas were the actual first commercially introduced bananas, but the Panamanian blight got to it. As a result, the inferior, but blight-resistant Cavendish, was introduced.

There's actually quite a few videos out there about how people have paid a lot of money or undertaken adventures to just try a Michel Gros. I guess there's one greenhouse farmer near Napa Valley that is raising Michel Gros and selling the bananas to high-end restaurants, namely French Laundry. I hope they make a comeback as they're supposedly creamier and have a strong banana taste.

I also look forward to the day when American Chestnuts are reintroduced. American heavy woods are really devoid of wildlife as there's probably not many food sources available, and chestnuts would make a meaningful impact in rehabilitating populations there.

While it's a dream, I could imagine one day the Midwest reverting back to its grasslands state and reintroducing all of the extinct megafauna, e.g., saber-tooh tigers, mastadons, wooly mammoths, etc.

Engineer-Poet said at September 30, 2013 6:15 PM:

A number of forest tree species are vulnerable to invasive pests and blights, and then there's climate change and the competition from woody vines revved up by higher CO2 as well.

Industrial civilization has been a disaster for temperate-zone ecosystems, and nuclear energy is one of the few things that can save it.  Ash borers and pine beetles and drought will leave you with a mess on your hands, but you can have a thriving forest next to a Chernobyl.

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