By Ben J. Novak
We are frequently asked by students what education pathway should they pursue to develop a career in next generation conservation – such as biotech-based genetic rescue and de-extinction projects. Currently there are no education programs in the world that are designed for this kind of specialty, but any university with relatively customizable biology, genetics, and conservation science major programs can be tailored for a future in this line of work.
Next generation conservation projects using biotech and genomics will be a highly interdisciplinary field, offering work for people with many specialties. It helps to decide early on what part of the process in which you want to be most involved – unless you want to lead projects (like I have been tasked to do with Revive & Restore’s Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback), in which case you’ll want familiarity in each discipline.
The major phases of these projects will be:
In Silico research – work that happens computationally – researching genomes, population genetics, disease models, etc. Studying a species to discover how to do de-extinction or how to come up with immunity to disease or enrich genetic diversity will require lab work and analysis in DNA, RNA, and proteins. Anything that will work with a DNA or RNA sequence will be piped through a computer and needs skills in bioinformatics. The lab work to produce DNA data is the realm of molecular biology – this will always need a good laboratory technician versed in biochemistry and genomics. The analysis of the data is the world of bioinformatics – I highly recommend learning how to do bioinformatics, no matter what part of a project you are most interested.
In Vitro (outside the organism) & In Vivo (in the organism) – the stages of engineering cells in a “petri dish” and then using those cells to birth/hatch/grow a living animal. Turning DNA information into actual animals requires knowledge of genetic engineering, cell culturing, and embryology – this is the world of cloning, germ-line transfer, and stem cells. One could become a cellular biologist, biomolecular engineer, or reproductive biologist and work in conservation in this realm.
Ex Situ (captive breeding) & In Situ (introduction to the wild) – these stages are already the prevue of intensive recovery programs for endangered species. There is established knowledge for how to work with many organisms Ex Situ and In Situ, thanks to field ecologists, game management, and zoos, but for many extinct species and their relatives little is known of how to care for and propagate populations. This is a great realm for graduate projects studying model species for the future of de-extinction and advanced reproductive technologies: there is always a need to develop standard protocols for the care of a species. These phases require thorough knowledge of ecology, zoology/botany, and life histories of species. This stage of the game needs wildlife veterinarians, animal husbandry workers, field ecologists, and more. It’s also the stage of conservation that has the most regulatory framework navigation: someone versed in environmental law is invaluable to navigate this work.
In short if you want to pursue a future using biotech in conservation you’ll want to study ecology, bioinformatics, genomics, and embryology to be well rounded. Any classes related directly to conservation science definitely will benefit you. Being conscious of what kind of species and projects you want to work with someday can greatly help guide considerations for classes and independent research.