The Genetic Rescue Foundation Blog

Inside The High-tech Plot To Save The Northern White Rhino From Extinction

Immediately after the world’s last male northern white rhino died on March 19th, a team of vets got to work. Within 30 minutes, they had collected tissue from the ears, gums, spleen, windpipes, and testicles of the 45-year-old rhino, named Sudan. The precious genetic material was put in a solution and then frozen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where Sudan spent the last nine years of his life. Those cells could one day bring the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction.

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The increasingly realistic prospect of ‘extinct animal’ zoos

Animal cloning is becoming more common – and cloning extinct species could be on the horizon. Could parks and zoos for these creatures be round the corner?

A traveller marvelling at snow leopards in a conservation park. A foodie who wants to taste pangolins without breaking the law. A game hunter tracking a black rhino which will be replenished after the kill.

To some people, these scenarios seem like dystopian nightmares. To others, they’re exciting prospects. And as the science advances, they may be more feasible than they might first appear. Some researchers are even exploring how animal cloning could change the tourism industry by 2070.

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Scientists at Harvard University have assembled the first nearly complete genome of the little bush moa, a flightless bird that went extinct soon after Polynesians settled New Zealand in the late 13th century. The achievement moves the field of extinct genomes closer to the goal of “de-extinction” — bringing vanished species back to life by slipping the genome into the egg of a living species, “Jurassic Park”-like.

“De-extinction probability increases with every improvement in ancient DNA analysis,” said Stewart Brand, co-founder of the nonprofit conservation group Revive and Restore, which aims to resurrect vanished species including the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth, whose genomes have already been mostly pieced together.

For the moa, whose DNA was reconstructed from the toe bone of a museum specimen, that might require a little more genetic tinkering and a lot of egg: The 6-inch long, 1-pounder that emus lay might be just the ticket.

The work on the little bush moa has yet to be published in a journal (the researchers posted a non-peer-reviewed paper on a public site), but colleagues in the small world of extinct genomes sang its praises. Morten Erik Allentoft of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, an expert on moa DNA and other extinct genomes, called it “a significant step forward.” Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led a 2017 study reconstructing the genome of the passenger pigeon, called it “super cool” because it “gives us an extinct genome on an evolutionary branch where we hadn’t had any before.”

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New Zealand’s two new (but long-lost) flightless birds

A goldmine of New Zealand’s prehistoric natural history has just yielded two more long-lost native species – tiny flightless rails.

Scientists discovered fossil bones of what have just been described as two new species of rail near St Bathans in Central Otago, where many other ancient specimens have been unearthed previously.

Canterbury Museum’s curator of natural history and study co-author, Dr Paul Scofield, said the new St Bathans rails join a host of other fossil birds recovered from these deposits that show New Zealand has long been a land of birds.

“The discovery of these two minuscule flightless rails raises the question, ‘Where did they come from?'” Schofield said.

“The new species are unlike any rail known elsewhere so their exact origin or closest relatives remain a mystery.”

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Researchers use CRISPR to detect HPV and Zika

Science published three studies today that all demonstrate new uses for CRISPR. The gene editing technology is typically thought of for its potential use in treating diseases like HIVALS and Huntington’s disease, but researchers are showing that applications of CRISPR don’t stop there.

The first study comes from the lab of CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna. Her team discovered that a CRISPR system different from the CRISPR-Cas9 one we’re used to hearing about can not only snip away specific bits of double-stranded DNA, but can then also cut single-stranded DNA that’s near it. After they uncovered this ability of CRISPR-Cas12a, they used it to detect two common types of HPV. Once their CRISPR-Cas12a system detected HPV DNA in infected cells, it cleaved a another piece of DNA that then released a fluorescent signal, providing a visual sign of the presence of HPV. The researchers dubbed the system DETECTR and The Verge reports that it takes around an hour to work and costs less than a dollar.

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Fossil poop reveals critical role of giant birds in New Zealand’s ecosystem

When the first humans landed on what is now known as New Zealand 700 years ago, they didn’t find mammals. Instead, they discovered giant birds called moas, as well as a host of other indigenous bird species. Soon, they had eaten many of them into extinction.

Now, by deciphering ancient DNA found in fossilized bird droppings, researchers have a better idea of the toll those extinctions took on New Zealand’s forests and shrublands. The study shows that mushrooms and other fungi were important to the extinct birds’ diets, and suggests moas had a strong hand in shaping New Zealand’s native landscape by helping fungi spread, says co-author Alan Cooper, an ancient DNA specialist at The University of Adelaide in Australia. Now that the moas are gone, “The forest has potentially lost a potentially major way to spread.”

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The Tech Donors Backing the De-Extinction Movement

Even just five years ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking an effort to resurrect woolly mammoths was a lark, perhaps a high-concept art project.

Increasingly, however, lumbering megafauna and revived flocks of passenger pigeons have become topics of serious discussion in research and conservation, along with a fierce debate over the ethics of using genetic engineering to bring back extinct species. As ecologist Douglas McCauley told Science last year, we’re progressing toward the “Holy crap, we can—so should we?” stage of the de-extinction conversation.

The work is still quite marginal, with a relatively small amount of funding coming from private donors—a varied bunch of individuals and foundations making mostly modest donations, but nonetheless helping to advance what once seemed like pure science fiction into mainstream dialogue.

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Overseas researchers interested in pest control or eradication are all looking at New Zealand

“Overseas researchers interested in pest control or eradication are all looking at New Zealand,” says Forest and Bird chief executive Kevin Hague.

There are several reasons for that. We are distant from other land masses, and we are surrounded by islands filled with pests that allow confined testing to eradicate whole populations.

We also have a natural ecology that once flourished in the absence of predators. Now infested with rats, we can target those pest populations without fear of killing protected mammals.

And there’s our national focus on killing pests. “This is a country in the world that has done the most in this area,” says Hague.

Not only that, but the government’s adoption of a grassroots ambition to become “predator free” by 2050 signalled to the world New Zealand was a country that took killing pests incredibly seriously.

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The hidden crisis shaping life on earth

The diversity of species on Earth is plummeting, and by 2100, the number of extinctions could be as high as 1,000 – what can we do about it?

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In Breakthrough, Scientists Edit a Dangerous Mutation From Genes in Human Embryos

Scientists for the first time have successfully edited genes in human embryos to repair a common and serious disease-causing mutation, producing apparently healthy embryos, according to a study published on Wednesday.

The research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.

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Resistance to CRISPR gene drives may arise easily

A genetic-engineering tool designed to spread through a population like wildfire — eradicating disease and even whole invasive species — might be more easily thwarted than thought.

Resistance to the tools, called CRISPR gene drives, arose at high rates in experiments with Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies, researchers at Cornell University report July 20 in PLOS GeneticsRates of resistance varied among strains of fruit flies collected around the world, from a low of about 4 percent in embryos from an Ithaca, N.Y., strain to a high of about 56 percent in Tasmanian fruit fly embryos.

“At these rates, the constructs would not start spreading in the population,” says coauthor Philipp Messer, a population geneticist. “It might require quite a bit more work to get a gene drive that works at all.”

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New Limits to Functional Portion of Human Genome Reported

An evolutionary biologist at the University of Houston has published new calculations that indicate no more than 25 percent of the human genome is functional. That is in stark contrast to suggestions by scientists with the ENCODE project that as much as 80 percent of the genome is functional.

In work published online in Genome Biology and Evolution, Dan Graur reports the functional portion of the human genome probably falls between 10 percent and 15 percent, with an upper limit of 25 percent. The rest is so-called junk DNA, or useless but harmless DNA.

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