The Genetic Rescue Foundation Blog

George Church: CRISPR

Predator-free target our last chance to save the kiwi

New Zealand will succeed in its ambition to be predator free by 2050 because the alternative is unthinkable to New Zealanders.

Unless we grasp the opportunity to fight back against these insidious invaders there will be no kiwi left by 2050. No kea, no kaka or kokako. We’ll be lucky to have a few fantails in the garden.

The decline of our native birds, insects and reptiles has been so steep, and the increase in predator populations so marked, that this campaign really is our last chance to save from extinction the things we treasure, and which make New Zealand special and different.

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Half of the world’s species could become extinct, biologists say

Here’s the sobering truth: Around half the species on Earth today could disappear by middle of the century, unless we humans can tackle climate change and slow our population growth.

That’s a view shared by leading biologists and ecologists, many of whom are gathering in the Vatican this week for a wonky but optimistic-sounding conference: “How To Save the Natural World on Which We Depend.”

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Rewriting the Code of Life

Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.

Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.

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Reckless driving?

By exploiting selfish elements, geneticists can now fit a gene drive to practically any DNA sequence (assuming they have a map of the target creature’s genome), effectively directing that species’ genetic future.

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The Case for Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon

North Dakota is not known for its pigeons. Or forests, for that matter. The state bird is the western meadowlark, a mellifluous yellow songbird often seen singing on fence posts. Such posts substitute for trees in much of North Dakota. The state is primarily covered in what was once short-grass prairie but is now mostly farms embedded in a human-made grassland, exceptions being the Badlands and a swath of boreal forest in the far north near Canada.

Yet it was near Williston, the heart of western North Dakota’s new boom-and-bust oil patch, that Ben Novak first fell in love with Ectopistes migratorius—the passenger pigeon, a bird that rarely graced this region, if ever.

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