A Call for Biotechnology in Ocean Conservation

By December 5, 2019 January 25th, 2020 Ocean Genomics Horizon Scan, Revive & Restore, Ryan Phelan

As 2019 comes to a close, we are likely to remember it as a remarkable year for the environment. When sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg sailed into New York Harbor earlier this year, she produced an enormous global response.

“Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, “And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

While Thunberg’s message was dire, it’s hard to say it was overstated. According to the U.N. report that was released during the assembly, the immediate threats that climate change presents, especially to our oceans, are formidable.

Additional Approaches to Saving the Seas

Yet Revive & Restore has found that a new set of interventions can foster a healthier ocean for our future. Co-founder and executive director of Revive & Restore, Ryan Phelan detailed some of these strategies from our 168-page Ocean Genomics Horizon Scan at the 2019 Breakthrough Dialogue, a meeting held this June in Sausalito by the Breakthrough Institute

This report is the culmination of nine months of research with over 100 experts in ocean ecology, genomics, and biotechnology. It describes how genomic and biotech innovations—including genomic sequencing, biobanking, advanced reproductive technologies, and genetic engineering—can address some of the ocean’s biggest threats—from coral bleaching and overfishing to invasives and island biodiversity—all-the-while complementing traditional conservation and remediation strategies.

To a roomful of scientists, conservationists, and thinkers, Phelan stated that these “genomic technologies in synthetic biology, by-in-large are highly underutilized by the conservation community, especially when it comes to the ocean.”

Traditional conservation efforts rely heavily on being protected, like California’s Monterey Bay. However, biotechnology must be used to enhance conservation, too, said Phelan.

“It’s really about the culmination of all of these technologies. It’s all the tools that conservation has to offer. We have to protect, absolutely,” she said, then added, “We have to intervene.”

The Ocean Genomics Horizon Scan helped Revive & Restore develop a list of Ten Big Ideas, each one a major opportunity for biotechnology to protect and promote a healthier marine environment. These include:

Genomics Guiding MPA’s

Using genomics, eDNA, and next-generation genetic sequencing to evaluate the biodiversity of an area, said Phelan, can help strengthen the rationale for preserving established MPAs and assess optimal locations for new MPAs.

Advanced Coral Toolkit

Today, reefs around the world are threatened by rising temperatures and invasive species. There are more than 650 different types of coral, but less than a dozen coral genomes have been sequenced.  “We’re losing biodiversity before we bank it and before we sequence it,” said Phelan.

Techniques for isolating coral stem cells, a robust library of coral genomes and cryopreserved specimens, plus the ability to induce coral spawning, will all help scientists revive coral reefs in the future, she added.

Targeting Invasives

Additionally, genomic interventions may help species gain a biological advantage to fend off predators, disease, and other threats that are winning out in many weakened ecosystems. These facilitated adaptations could one day help corals fend off the crown of thorns starfish—14 million of which are preying upon the Great Barrier Reef and adding to its destabilization.

See all Ten Big Ideas from the Ocean Genomics Horizon Scan

A GROWING MOVEMENT FOR BIOTECH IN CONSERVATION

With groups like Revive & Restore and the Breakthrough Institute, the use of biotechnology in conservation is becoming more widely known and slowly growing in acceptance among conservation scientists, environmental groups, and governing bodies. In fact, our Catalyst Science Fund is now supporting several basic research projects that will help build innovative technologies for conservation—sequencing and biobanking tools, advanced reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, gene editing, and more.

“These are nascent technologies that are waiting for funders to help catalyze and to bring new opportunities for scientists to actually engage in,” said Phelan. “Once we have those success stories, we can really build the future we all want to be a part of.”

Additional Resources