Increasingly intractable threats to nature such as habitat fragmentation and climate change are creating an urgency to develop and deploy effective interventions. Genetic technologies can provide solutions, but there is little guidance for biotechnologists and conservationists to work together. Intended Consequences Workshop participants agreed that there is a need to develop a shared set of values and a framework to guide genetic interventions for nature conservation. As part of the Intended Consequences Initiative, Revive & Restore is spearheading the development of a Code of Practice for Genetic Interventions in Conservation, a document that finds common ground and integrates best practices from multiple disciplines.
Why A Code of Practice Is Needed
The dialogue around the use of genetic engineering and gene-editing technologies is driven by concerns over safety in human health and agriculture. Genetic interventions for conservation currently draft behind advancements in biomedicine and agriculture. But this emerging discipline will soon come into its own—pushing new biotechnology innovations driven by the unique needs and research opportunities found in natural environments.
The as-yet-to-be-seen promise and feared peril of proposed gene drives has driven public, regulatory, and scientific discourse. This eclipses the wider array of potential and presently available genetic interventions for conservation. The controversy surrounding gene drives has inflated perceptions that all genetic interventions in nature pose completely novel and challenging risks for which the world is unprepared.
Overlapping Disciplines Can Provide A Framework
Human health and medicine, biotechnology research and applications, agriculture, and conventional conservation interventions have several national and international ethical frameworks and guidelines. Overall, an almost universal framework for risk assessment has emerged among these disciplines, which is conceptually equipped to now encompass genetic interventions in nature. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but rather to identify and adapt risk assessments for the applications and challenges of using genetic interventions for conservation.
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Guiding principles and practices in this space consider the impacts to nature from human health and agricultural biotech applications (overlapping from center to right) but have yet to consider the benefits and impacts of genetic interventions for wild species and environments to nature, agriculture, or human health (overlapping from left to center).
Though the many guideline documents in existence provide a foundation for developing and implementing genetic interventions for conservation, there are significant gaps concerning the integration of values, inclusivity, and stakeholder engagement and involvement. There is also a severe skew toward risk assessment, leaving no room to consider the intended benefits.
The implementation of conservation interventions requires intimate local knowledge of the environment, careful consideration of cultural and economic uses of the environment, and a long-term commitment to achieve success. Motivating actions that will take years is only possible with a focus on the intended end-goal benefits. This places emphasis on the need for early risk-benefit analyses and an “intended consequences” mindset. There is little existing guidance for filling these gaps, but previous conservation interventions provide insight. The most successful conservation programs build positive and inclusive stakeholder relations and bolster involvement and pride among the local communities that directly benefit from conservation actions. Learning from such examples, we can extend these best practices to genetic interventions.
WHAT IS THE CODE OF PRACTICE?
The Code of Practice For Genetic Intervention will be developed with the participation of an international panel of advisors who will consider multicultural perspectives to develop a tool that is useful to conservationists and biotechnologists everywhere. The ultimate form of this endeavor is yet to be decided. However, our initial vision for the code is a document that:
- Provides a playbook that enables conservationists and biotechnologists to work together to implement genetic interventions safely and effectively.
- Spans initial design, ethical practice, fundraising, and transparent and inclusive stakeholder engagement and involvement.
- Allows newcomers to conservation and/or biotech to achieve success when designing and implementing genetic interventions.
- Builds credibility and trustworthiness of genetic interventions.
- Establishes a foundation to work with and ease the considerations and burdens of regulators, policymakers, and decision-makers.
CODE OF PRACTICE STEERING COMMITTEE
At present, Revive & Restore is forming a steering committee to set the course for this endeavor. The committee includes (but is not limited to) participants from the Intended Consequences Workshop. One of the first tasks of the steering committee is to establish an advisory and review panel that represents a diversity of constituencies from around the globe. Current members of the steering committee are:
- Ben Novak—Revive & Restore, Steering Committee Coordinator
- Omar Akbari—University of California, San Diego
- Evelyn Brister—Rochester Institute of Technology
- Alta Charo—University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Owain Edwards—Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
- Doria Gordon—Environmental Defense Fund
- Margaret Hunter— U.S. Geological Survey, Wetland & Aquatic Research Center
- Aditi Mankad—Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
- Andy Newhouse—SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
- Megan Palmer—Stanford University, Revive & Restore Board of Directors
- Royden Saah—Island Conservation
- Phil Seddon—University of Otago