In Arctic Siberia, Russian scientists are trying to stave off catastrophic climate change—by resurrecting an Ice Age biome complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths.
New Zealand’s kākāpō recovery program has been given a major shot in the arm thanks to a significant donation from The Genetic Rescue Foundation supporter Stafford Marquardt and Google.
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.”
The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.
Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”
Scientists working in coördination with a U.S. conservation group say they’ve established an evolution-warping technology called a “gene drive” in mammals for the first time and could use it to stamp out invasive rodents ravaging seabirds on islands.
Gene-drive technology, so far demonstrated only in insects and yeast, is a powerful way of biasing the inheritance of DNA such that wild animals can be genetically altered as they reproduce, including to cause a population crash.
Now two scientific teams—one in Australia and one in Texas—say they’ve genetically engineered the house mouse, Mus musculus, so that its genome also harbors genetic surprises that could be unleashed on wild populations. The modified rodents were born in the last two months and the results are still preliminary.
The effort to establish gene drives in mammals is being coördinated by Island Conservation, a hard-charging conservation group based in Santa Cruz, California, whose specialty is bombing small islands with rat poison in order to save endangered seabirds. Its motto is “preventing extinctions.”
Until this obstacle is overcome, the technology is unlikely to succeed in the wild.
“These things are not going to get too far in terms of eradicating a population,” says Michael Wade, an evolutionary geneticist at Indiana University Bloomington. Gene drives could result in the genetic isolation — in which populations do not mate with each other — of groups that manage to avoid inheriting the modified genetic code, he and his colleagues found. And gene variants that decrease a population’s propensity to mingle with other populations — such as those that limit flight capacity in insects — would suddenly prove beneficial and could spread.
Resistance to gene drives is unavoidable, so researchers are hoping that they can blunt the effects long enough to spread a desired mutation throughout a population. Some have floated the idea of creating gene drives that target multiple genes, or several sites within the same gene, diminishing the speed with which resistance would develop. By surveying a species’ natural genetic diversity, researchers could target genes common to all individuals.
De-extinction could soon become reality – and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is already making plans to encourage proper use of the technology.