Revolutionary genomic tools being developed for human health might also be deployed for ecological health. That was the premise of a two and a half day workshop for 52 pioneering molecular biologists, conservation biologists, veterinarians, and other specialists, organized by Ryan Phelan (Revive & Restore) and Kent Redford (Archipelago Consulting). The focus of the meeting was on finding practical solution paths for otherwise intractable conservation problems, which could be set in motion in the near future.
The group heard about recent biotech breakthroughs and successes such as: CRISPR/Cas9 for precise genome editing (George Church, Harvard); gene drive to spread maladaptive traits (Kevin Esvelt, Harvard); mosquito abatement with sterile males (Luke Alphey, Oxitec, and Ronald Thresher, CSIRO); RNA interference (Fred Gould, North Carolina State Univ.); cryopreserved DNA (Oliver Ryder, San Diego Zoo); and engineered blight resistance in American chestnuts (William Powell, SUNY).
To push toward realistic conservation solutions, work groups focussed on three kinds of case studies: 1) Vector-transmitted diseases in wildlife (mosquito-borne avian malaria in Hawaiian birds, flea-borne slyvatic plague in black-footed ferrets); 2) Wildlife diseases with no vector (chytrid fungus in amphibians, herpes virus in Asian elephants); 3) Destructive invasive organisms (rodents on ocean islands, ants on ocean islands).
The three groups developed their solutions by stages, first working out the technological approach, then re-examining it in light of ethical, cultural, and legal considerations, and finally selecting one project they had to present as a business-like pitch to a panel of potential funders.
The experience of the workshop generated such excitement that new collaborations formed to carry every one of the case study projects toward implementation in the real world, along with exploration of how best to engage the public with the use of the radical new conservation tools.
1st row – left to right: Kent Redford, Owain Edwards; Perry Hall, Ryan Phelan, Stewart Brand; 2nd row: Paul Vredenburg, Michelle Verant, Oliver Ryder, Ken Gage, Fred Gould, Jack Newman; 3rd row: Luke Alphey, Bob Cook, Paul Ling, Ian Lipkin, Toni Piaggio, Marcela Uliano da Silva, Neil Tsutsui, Ben Hoffman; William Karesh; 4th row: Tim Doran, Lee Skerrat, Eleonore Pauwels, Neil Gemmel, Dennis Schmitt, Wendy Kiso; 5th row: Karl Campbell, James Collins, Dee McAloose, Alicia Jackson, Bruce Hay, Ron Thresher, Bill Powell, Rob Fleischer, Drew Endy; Back row : Tanja Zabka, Toni Rocke, Thierry Work, David Threadgill, Phil Seddon, Jeremy Coleman, Kevin Esvelt, George Church, Josh Donlan, Gregg Howald, Margaret Wild, Jennifer Kuzma, Claudio Campagna, Rob Carlson, David Lang, Ben Novak
Photo credit: Nancy Dionne