The Genetic Rescue Foundation Blog

Are the disruptions of uberisation a bane or boon for science?

Uberisation is the latest buzzword to describe the disruption of industries by slick digital platforms connecting workers with specific tasks or services. So where does science stand in the brave new uberised world? For every characteristic of uberisation, there is a parallel in the world of research. This raises the question of whether research uberised before Uber even existed? In this article, EuroScientist, looks into whether science was ahead of its time and explores what we can expect in the future.

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The Changing Frontier of Science

Cutting-edge science is being conducted at a growing rate outside of traditional institutions- at startups founded by entrepreneurs and funded by venture capitalists, and by a growing base of global citizen scientists networked to each other and equipped with technology and tools previously unaffordable or inaccessible.

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Tweaking Genes to Save Species

On islands around the globe, invasive rodents are obliterating native plants and animals — many of which exist nowhere else. By some estimates, 90 percent of these archipelagos are plagued by nonnative rodents. Eradicating them could restore ecosystems and let evolutionary processes resume unfettered. The current method, poison, is a costly, labor-intensive one that also risks harm to native animals.

Scientists are developing advanced genetic techniques to ensure that all mouse offspring are male. No females, no babies, no more invasive rodents.

Such targeted conservation “would be transformative in our ability to deal with invasive rodents, which are a major extinction driver,” says Josh Donlan, an ecologist, expert in island conservation, and director of the nonprofit Advanced Conservation Strategies.

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The Augmented Human Being

I worry about a lot of things. I encourage people to worry about a lot of things, but worry in the sense of taking action, doing something about it and being cautious as you do something about it—doing safety engineering. Every field of engineering has a safety component, eventually. You have civil engineering, aerospace, and so forth; huge amounts of their budgets go to safety components, and biology is no exception. – George Church

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Elimination of HIV-1 Genomes from Human T-lymphoid Cells by CRISPR/Cas9 Gene Editing

We employed an RNA-guided CRISPR/Cas9 DNA editing system to precisely remove the entire HIV-1 genome spanning between 5′ and 3′ LTRs of integrated HIV-1 proviral DNA copies from latently infected human CD4+ T-cells. Comprehensive assessment of whole-genome sequencing of HIV-1 eradicated cells ruled out any off-target effects by our CRISPR/Cas9 technology that might compromise the integrity of the host genome and further showed no effect on several cell health indices including viability, cell cycle and apoptosis. Persistent co-expression of Cas9 and the specific targeting guide RNAs in HIV-1-eradicated T-cells protected them against new infection by HIV-1. Lentivirus-delivered CRISPR/Cas9 significantly diminished HIV-1 replication in infected primary CD4+ T-cell cultures and drastically reduced viral load in ex vivo culture of CD4+ T-cells obtained from HIV-1 infected patients. Thus, gene editing using CRISPR/Cas9 may provide a new therapeutic path for eliminating HIV-1 DNA from CD4+ T-cells and potentially serve as a novel and effective platform toward curing AIDS.

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In Newly Created Life-Form, a Major Mystery

Peel away the layers of a house — the plastered walls, the slate roof, the hardwood floors — and you’re left with a frame, the skeletal form that makes up the core of any structure. Can we do the same with life? Can scientists pare down the layers of complexity to reveal the essence of life, the foundation on which biology is built?

That’s what Craig Venter and his collaborators have attempted to do in a new study published today in the journal Science. Venter’s team painstakingly whittled down the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, a bacterium that lives in cattle, to reveal a bare-bones set of genetic instructions capable of making life. The result is a tiny organism named syn3.0 that contains just 473 genes. (By comparison, E. coli has about 4,000 to 5,000 genes, and humans have roughly 20,000.)

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The Global Solution to Extinction

Civilization is at last turning green, albeit only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment — on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human-forced climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both.

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Contractors unearth giant moa bones in rural South Canterbury

Contractors discovered dozens of bones from what may be the tallest bird species recorded in what has been called an increasingly rare find.

The bones of a female South Island giant moa were found with at least one bone from a much smaller male at a still-secret location in rural South Canterbury.

They were found in spoil removed from a small, deep trench dug in what was once an ancient swamp.

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Invasive species blamed as second biggest cause of extinctions

Tim Blackburn at University College London and his colleagues compiled data from the Red List on 247 species of plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal that have disappeared since 1500. They found that invasive species are the second most common threat associated with the losses, behind hunting, fishing or harvesting. For amphibians, mammals and reptiles, invasive species were the number one threat.

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CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning

Much of the conversation about CRISPR–Cas9 has revolved around its potential for treating disease or editing the genes of human embryos, but researchers say that the real revolution right now is in the lab. What CRISPR offers, and biologists desire, is specificity: the ability to target and study particular DNA sequences in the vast expanse of a genome. And editing DNA is just one trick that it can be used for. Scientists are hacking the tools so that they can send proteins to precise DNA targets to toggle genes on or off, and even engineer entire biological circuits — with the long-term goal of understanding cellular systems and disease.

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Bringing Back the Moa?

In The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin asserts that “species and groups of species gradually disappear one after another, first from one spot, then from another, and finally from the world.” From the Darwinian perspective, species adaptation and extinction are not only inexorable natural forces, but are also necessary to sustain the astonishing biodiversity of this planet. Of course, Darwin was writing just at the cusp of the modern era, right before industrialization and other anthropogenic factors began to accelerate extinction rates beyond natural background levels. We are now in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis caused by interacting forces such as climate change, the illegal trade in endangered species, habitat loss and ongoing modernization around the globe. Indeed, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) believes that extinction is proceeding at up to 1,000 times or more the natural rate.

Is it heresy to suggest that Darwin’s understanding of extinction may no longer be entirely true? What if we now have the scientific tools to bring back at least some of those disappeared ghost species that haunt our imagination? De-extinction refers broadly to the use of biotechnological tools such as reproductive cloning, genome sequencing and assisted reproduction in the effort to “bring back” extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), or the moa. Critics worry that de-extinction distracts our focus from those species currently on-the-brink in favor of fantastical “resurrection” projects and contend that scarce conservation resources are best spent on those extant species that we could potentially save. Yet de-extinction done ethically could enrich global biodiversity by reintroducing “lost genes” to the global genome and re-instating keystone species that played an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems that are now under threat. We do not have to pit conservation against de-extinction; instead, we need to start thinking now about how we can harness all of the tools at our disposal to reinvigorate the environmental movement and replenish nature.

The Genetic Rescue Foundation is an increasingly visible stakeholder in the de-extinction and bio-conservation debate. Started by David Iorns, an expat Kiwi who lives and works in Silicon Valley, the Genetic Rescue Foundation uses innovative methods such as crowdfunding and social media to generate broad public and financial support for the use of biotechnology in conservation. Recently, the Foundation launched The Kakapo 125 Project, which intends to sequence the genome of every remaining live kakapo in New Zealand. The information gleaned from the project will be invaluable in ensuring that this iconic Kiwi species has the best possible chance to survive into the 21st century.

The Genetic Rescue Foundation is also a key player in a collaborative effort to bring back the moa. Originally, the island that became New Zealand hosted nine different species of these flightless birds (Dinornithiformes). Approximately 600 years ago, the moa abruptly went extinct for reasons that have been scientifically contested. The dominant theory today, based on recent ancient DNA studies, suggests that the moa’s demise was caused primarily by the arrival of Polynesians who hunted them, though variables such as climate change, disease or volcanic eruptions have also been mooted. As early as 1922, the Dunedin Star newspaper noted that “one of the oldest and certainly one of the most heated scientific controversies that ever engaged the attention of the New Zealand public was that which raged over the question as to the date of extinction of the moa.” Archival analysis further suggests that Kiwi interest in the moa dovetailed with both the public dissemination of Darwinian ideas about evolution in the late 1800s, and again with the early stirrings of a national—as opposed to colonial—identity immediately following World War I.

Today the moa is considered an iconic species, associated with a lush, primeval New Zealand that teemed with kiwis, kakapos and giant eagles. The moa is also a species at the forefront of international efforts to accomplish de-extinction over the long-term. The elusive elixir that could make de-extinction possible for the moa (among other species) is so-called “ancient DNA.” Around the world, scientists are revisiting bones and other specimens long locked up in natural history museums to see if these talismans might contain fragments of viable DNA that can then be amplified in the lab and,potentially, used in reproductive cloning projects. Thus far, the news on this front is mixed, with a recent analysis of four moa samples by the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab indicating the samples are too degraded to yield anything but a minute amount of endogenous DNA that would be prohibitively expensive to sequence. At the moment, the search for a well-preserved moa bone goes on.

The idea of bringing back the moa—as with bringing back the thylacine or the woolly mammoth—is a controversial one that sparks a great deal of public and scientific debate. Of course, public attention to the extinction crisis is one of the most important things that an organization such as the Genetic Rescue Foundation can generate. Even if the moa project does not succeed, the dialogue that has ensued and the associated knowledge and projects that can spin off from this effort are themselves invaluable contributions to our natural heritage. De-extinction—complicated, controversial and conditional—has already succeeded in bringing new enthusiasm and sources of funding into the conservation arena. If we resist the notion that extant and extinct species are in competition with each other, and focus instead on biological and environmental enrichment in the deepest sense, de-extinction could prove a journey into the past that ensures our environmental future.

fletcher-sm Amy L. Fletcher, PHD
Associate Professor of Political Science (The University of Canterbury) and Advisory Board Member of The Moa Revival Project, 1 March 2016

An Ecomodernist Manifesto

A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.

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