2017 Year End Report

Expanding Operations

Since our founding five years ago, Revive & Restore has become a recognized and respected leader in guiding the responsible application of biotechnology to address conservation challenges for endangered species and ecosystems.

Last year’s annual report announced that Revive & Restore, then a project of The Long Now Foundation, was prepared to “fledge” and become an independent non-profit organization. We are pleased to report that we have completed that process, receiving our tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service last March.

As part of this process, we established our Board of Directors, with backgrounds in academia, the biotech industry, and conservation:

  • Tom Chase, The Nature Conservancy (Massachusetts chapter)
  • Megan Palmer, Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation
  • Beth Shapiro, University of California at Santa Cruz’s Paleogenomics Lab
  • Brad Stanback, The Foundation for the Carolinas
  • Matt Winkler, Asuragen

Tom Maloney

We recruited Tom Maloney as Director of Conservation Science, who brings to this role twenty years of conservation experience as environmental advocate, natural resource planner, and ecologist. Tom is also an avid birder.

Meanwhile, our biotech-and-ecology scientist Ben Novak (Lead Researcher, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback) is working “offsite” a little farther away than usual. He was invited to pursue his Ph.D. at Monash University in Melbourne, where he is now working with cutting-edge scientists from Australia’s prestigious research organization CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) to advance genome-engineering techniques for pigeons and other wild birds.

Convening

We were invited early this year by CSIRO to co-host a workshop at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef to address “Engineering Resilience in Threatened Ecosystems,” based upon a workshop format that we successfully introduced in 2015.

The four-day meeting was attended by an international group of 43 scientists focused on four key areas: climate resilience, invasive species, disease resistance, and stakeholder engagement. On day one, the participants reviewed a wide range of potential challenges to address, from invasive species (cane toads, feral cats, and rodents), to amphibians with chytrid fungus and bats with White-Nose Syndrome. Each work group was then tasked with designing a research program for a specific case study using a genomic solution to address a key environmental challenge, culminating with a presentation of their work to a panel representing potential funding sources (industry, government, and philanthropy).

The resulting case studies were:

  • Climate Resilience: “Reefs for the future: Next generation corals for tomorrow’s reef.”
  • Invasive Species: “Future-proofing biodiversity: Restoring indigenous cultural stories.”
  • Disease Resistance: “Combating rapid Ohi’a death: Saving Hawaii’s forests.”
  • Stakeholder Engagement: “World institute for synthesizing engagement”

We are pleased to report that several new partnerships and scientific collaborations were formed at this workshop, with several of these case studies now moving forward with funding.

Genetic Rescue Listserv

To help advance the emerging field of genetic rescue, Revive & Restore continues to host a private listserv discussion with the scientific and conservation communities. It has now grown to 190 members including conservationists, genome engineers, social scientists, philanthropists, and science journalists.

Advancing Research & Development

Black-footed Ferret:  After several years of discussion, meetings, and planning with the National Black Footed Ferret Center, Revive & Restore has applied for a Recovery Permit with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). In collaboration with Intrexon (a leading biotech company), Revive & Restore developed the application to conduct laboratory-based experiments to increase the genetic diversity of the Black-footed Ferret and to create heritable resistance to two deadly diseases, sylvatic plague and canine distemper. Revive & Restore will also work with the USFWS to assess any potential environmental effects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Avian Genetic Rescue: Although the de-extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen will likely take a decade, avian de-extinction research is already generating foundational science that could transform bird conservation. Many of the same technologies are needed for endangered birds in order to restore genetic diversity, create or enhance disease resistance, and facilitate adaptation to address genomic vulnerability to a changing climate. This can only be accomplished by germ-line transmission, a process we have started to develop for Greater Prairie Chickens. The primordial germ cells of the donor bird’s embryo are extracted, grown in cell cultures, and then transmitted through the reproductive organs of surrogate host parents (known as chimeras). The chimeras then foster the sperm/eggs of the germ-cell donor, meaning when bred they will lay eggs and brood offspring of the donor. This process is used in chickens but, if successfully developed for wild birds, our work will open up a whole new set of potential genomic tools to address avian conservation challenges. 

Passenger Pigeon Cover Story

Four years ago, Revive & Restore’s Ben Novak joined a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz to examine passenger pigeon genomics. The team, led by Beth Shapiro – head of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab and a Revive & Restore board member, analyzed four passenger pigeon genomes and compared them to two genomes of the band-tailed pigeon – the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative.

The major discovery of the study earned the cover story of the November 2017 issue of Science. Their analysis of the passenger pigeon’s genome is the first study to reveal how natural selection and genetic recombination shape a genome in an abundant population, as was the passenger pigeon’s before the arrival of European settlers to North America. The passenger pigeon numbered between 3 billion and 5 billion individuals before its 19th-century decline and extinction. In fact, the species was abundant for tens of thousands of years before being relentlessly hunted down to the very last bird. Scientists have long wondered why a bird with such a large population, only decades before its extinction, disappeared so quickly and so completely, without leaving even a small population behind.

Generally, biologists assume that large populations have correspondingly high genetic diversity. But the team found the opposite: the passenger pigeon’s strong social structure favored beneficial mutations for living at high densities, driving selection throughout the species and decreasing genetic diversity in large sections of the genome where recombination seldom occurs. This low diversity means that passenger pigeons would have needed to be conserved as a one contiguous population, not a fragmented one. This is an important insight for declining and recovering species that also live in dense social groups. This understanding of passenger pigeon genomics will also a play a key role in Revive & Restore’s efforts to build a successful program to revive the species’ vital ecological role. To read more, please visit our website and check out Ben’s latest blog post.

Horseshoe Crabs, which have been around for 450 million years, may not survive our era because they are captured at a massive scale and bled for the biomedical industry. Because their blue blood is ultra-sensitive to infectious bacteria, it is used to detect contamination in all vaccines and injectable drugs. An effective synthetic substitute has been developed but not deployed, so the capture of crabs continues needlessly. Revive & Restore is working to overcome corporate and government inertia to the adoption of the synthetic alternative.

Looking Forward to 2018 

Revive & Restore is working to scale up in order to help build the global consortium of players and supporters needed to accomplish the full promise of genetic rescue in the coming years and decades. We have begun creating an initial coalition of international organizations and funders eager to build a wave front of responsible applications of new biotechnology tools to ensure ecosystem resilience and enhance.

Our goal for 2018 is to expand our work at the programmatic level, taking on projects with the capability to advance genetic rescue as a standard tool for modern conservation practice. This means our projects will push forward the science needed to make genetic rescue possible for endangered species. As proof-of-concept projects, they will engage local communities and earn the social license needed for innovative science.

Our previous workshops have inspired new funding opportunities and programs within federal agencies and key conservation organizations. The National Park Service has asked us to help convene a conference in 2018 on innovative solutions for invasive species. In addition, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a designated an “innovation fund” and has asked us to help identify opportunities to target the fungal pathogen causing the devastating White-Nose Syndrome in wild bats and reduce its pathogenicity.

Catalyst Fund: Revive & Restore has come to an important realization that a key barrier to the adoption of genomic solutions by the conservation community is the lack of success stories. The success of these projects is dependent upon advancing the science; and that the barrier to scientific advancement is funding. In order to remove these barriers, Revive & Restore is raising an initial Catalyst Fund of $2 to $5 million, to invest in potentially transformative conservation science innovations that can emerge from the continuing rapid new developments in biotechnology.

Recommended 2018 books and articles featuring Revive & Restore

Books:

  • Ben Mezrich’s Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. [Learn more.]
  • Britt Wray’s Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction. [Learn more.]
  • Chris D. Thomas’s Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. [Learn more.]

Articles:

  • Anderson, Ross. “Welcome to Pleistocene Park,” The Atlantic, April 1, 2014. [Read here.]
  • Conniff, Richard. “Should Genetic Engineering Be Used as a Tool for Conservation?” YaleEnvironment360, July 20, 2017. [Read here.]
  • Scharfenberg, David. “Extinction is a bummer. Let’s bring back the dead,” The Boston Globe, May 26, 2017. [Read here.]
  • Yin, Steph. “We Might Soon Resurrect Extinct Species. Is It Worth the Cost?” The New York Times, March 20, 2017. [Read here.]
  • Yong, Ed. “What DNA Says About the Extinction of America’s Most Common Bird…and its possible resurrection,” The Atlantic, November 16, 2017. [Read here.]