Honolulu, HI – Genomic technology promises a new potential toolkit for wildlife conservation. Revive & Restore is convening conservation leaders to further explore the potential for responsibly developing and applying these technologies to critical conservation issues that have proven extremely difficult, or impossible, to solve.
Hawai’i, arguably “the extinction capitol of the world,” is home to three such problems:
1) A rapidly spreading invasive fungus (Ceratocystis fimbriata), referred to as “Rapid Ohi’a Death,” threatens Hawaii’s most important native tree, the Ohi’a. Since 2012 the fungus has killed hundreds of thousands of Ohi’a trees, a keystone species in the Hawaiian forest. A solution has yet to be found .
2) Many of Hawaii’s native birds are being driven to extinction by avian malaria carried by invasive mosquitoes brought here a hundred years ago. Native bird species have no resistance. Avian diseases have contributed to the extinction of 38 Hawaii-endemic forest birds and threaten 21 of the remaining 32. Climate change is compounding this problem.
3) Similar to most Pacific islands, Hawaii’s native birds and plants suffer severely from predation by invasive rats and mice, a leading cause of extinctions on islands. Eradicating invasive rodents reverses this problem, present on 90% of our world’s islands. However, current conservation tools have serious limitations that slow the rate, or altogether prevent, such restoration projects.
Countries all over the world, and island nations in particular, face similar conservation problems.
The primary technology making advanced genomic solutions for conservation possible is the high-precision genome editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas 9, adapted from its natural occurrence in bacteria. With CRISPR, specific and minimal edits can be made to the genome of a species such as the Ohi’a tree, the mosquito that carries avian malaria, or invasive rodents. If the genome edit is proved to have the desired effect on a conservation problem, it can gradually (and reversibly if needed) be introduced and promulgated through the wild population until the problem eventually disappears.
An additional newly-emerging genetic tool that may prove useful for conservation is called “gene drive,” referring to its potential ability to drive a desired trait through a wild population. It only works with rapidly reproducing sexual organisms such as insects and rodents. Gene drives are common in nature, but before now have not been harnessed by conservationists. A careful study of the gene drive technique by the National Academy of Sciences, published in June 2016, concluded: “The potential benefits of gene drives for basic and applied research are significant and justify proceeding with laboratory research and highly controlled field trials”.
“While the jury is still out about using genomic solutions as new ‘tools’ for biodiversity conservation, we would be foolish not to give them serious consideration and discussion at this global conservation event!” said Chipper Wichman, chief executive officer of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
In the case of the Ohi’a, the trees or the fungus might be genetically adjusted so that the disease is no longer harmful. A similar approach has successfully been applied to the American chestnut tree, driven nearly extinct by a fungal blight. Hawaii’s native birds could be protected from avian malaria by adjusting the disease vector (non-native, invasive mosquitoes) to no longer carry the disease or to be eliminated entirely.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has “for some time been looking to address the intractable conservation and recovery issue of avian malaria. Given that these birds are faced with limited population numbers and are mostly relegated by the disease to upper elevation habitats, there is a real urgency to work with partners to find a solution that is compatible with Hawaii’s people, wildlife and ecosystems,” said a spokesperson with the FWS’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.
Similar edits could be made and introduced into the genomes of destructive invasive rodents to bias sex-selection to 100 percent male, establishing a population unable to reproduce.
In each case, these genomic approaches could replace standard conservation interventions such as the long-term and widespread application of rodenticides, insecticides, or fungicides. These carry other risks and limitations as they can cause non-target mortality and may ultimately prove ineffective as resistance emerges.
The genomic tools, which are only now being developed, must undergo carefully phased lab work, highly controlled field trials, as well as detailed analysis of risks, and social and ethical suitability before they are ever introduced to the wild. A well-informed and engaged public is essential to guide development of the necessary protocols, regulations, and policies governing the use of these emerging tools.
To examine the potential role that new genomic tools could perform in wildlife conservation, Revive & Restore – with the support of National Geographic, and the National Park Service – is facilitating a discussion at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.
“The main audience for our two sessions is the global community of conservationists,” said Ryan Phelan, Executive Director of Revive & Restore. “Whether Hawaii, or any other community, chooses to develop, evaluate, and apply these new tools for their most severe conservation problems is their call. However, we must explore how the range of options has greatly expanded, and ask ourselves what the consequences of these conservation problems will be without a genome-based solution.”