Gene editing becomes an important tool for biodiversity.
With the passionate opposition to GMO crops, much of the public is scared, and most environmentalists are narrowly focused on exploiting and amplifying the fear. And the environmentalists themselves fear losing their message if they say anything positive about genetically modified organisms. This is the Luddite mainstream of environmental activism. The practical stream is embracing gene editing as an important biodiversity tool.
The first issue of The CRISPR Journal reports successful uses of gene editing to save and expand threatened wildlife populations. (And elsewhere leading genomics scientists like George Church of Harvard are working on the restoration of extinct species, reversing the damage done by expanding human populations over the last 40,000 years.)
Applying GE to Conservation
The California-based nonprofit Revive & Restore is one of
a handful of conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on GE-based conservation projects.
With the mission of enhancing biodiversity through the
genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species, Revive
& Restore is working to advance a spectrum of tools for
genetic rescue that range from advanced genetic insight
(which can determine the range of genetic diversity
in a population or identify source populations) to deextinction.
The development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a precise
GE technique offers numerous possibilities for
expanding conservation applications of biotechnology.
Revive & Restore has submitted a proposal to the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to research whether
GE may be used to facilitate resistance to sylvatic plague
in the endangered black-footed ferret.
Twice presumed extinct, the ferret was saved through a captive
breeding and reintroduction program. However, despite
the success of the program, re-established wild populations
are vulnerable to sylvatic plague, a nonnative bacterial
infection fatal to the black-footed ferret. All ferrets
bred in captivity are vaccinated before their release to
the wild, but vaccinating wild-born ferrets poses sustainability
challenges. Heritable plague resistance could enable
long-term sustained recovery.
One possible solution would use GE to activate innate
alleles that would otherwise require a vaccine to be
expressed. A second approach would edit plague-resistant
alleles from the domestic ferret (for which plague is not
fatal) into the genome of the black-footed ferret. However,
without precise GE technology, the transfer of domestic
ferret plague-resistant alleles to black-footed ferrets.
Who is behind Revise and Restore? Two co-founders. One has been familiar in counter-culture thinking since the 1960s, Stewart Brand, creator of Whole Earth Catalog. The other is Ryan Phelan, pioneer in genomics for biodiversity.