On September 3, and 4, 2016, Revive & Restore participated in its first IUCN World Conservation Congress, hosting two sessions to explore the potential for responsibly developing and applying new genomic technologies to critical conservation problems.
The 2016 congress was the largest in the 68-year history of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with nearly 10,000 registered participants. It was also the first held in the United States. The setting was Hawaii, sometimes labeled “the extinction capital of the world.” Few places have more urgency to introduce new tools for saving species and ecosystems.
The goal of Revive & Restore’s sessions was to initiate an important conversation: how might conservation develop and properly use the new genetic tools? Revive & Restore cofounder Ryan Phelan noted, “Many Hawaiian species are on the verge of extinction, and there may be a way to save them. It is entirely up to the local community to decide whether these tools might be appropriate, but it’s important to remember the consequences of doing nothing.”
September 3 – Species Conservation Pavilion
“Stamping Out Mosquitoes in Hawaii: Can new technology stop avian malaria from driving Hawaii’s native birds to extinction?”
The public event drew a jam-packed audience, with the crowd bleeding into the isles of the main exhibition floor.
Sam ‘Ohukani’ōhi‘a Gon, III, Senior Scientists and Cultural Advisor at The Nature Conservancy, began the session with the creation chant of Hawaiʻi .
The topic of mosquitoes in Hawaii is literally heating up. Because of climate change, disease-carrying mosquitoes are expanding their range to higher elevations each year, encroaching upon the last safe refuge of Hawaii’s native birds. The higher ranging mosquitoes are bringing lethal avian malaria, pox, and other exotic diseases.
Avian malaria and pox, introduced by invasive mosquitoes brought to Hawaii less than 200 hundred years ago, have caused the extinction of 34 bird species to date. Currently, just 30% of Hawaii’s native birds remain, and the majority of these species are threatened with extinction as mosquitoes continue to spread.
The session’s speakers outlined the urgency and the facts:
- Hawaii’s birds, particularly the unique honeycreepers, will go extinct within a matter of years because of mosquito-borne diseases, unless backup populations are established in captivity.
- The only way to ensure the survival, or reintroduction, of wild birds is to eradicate mosquitoes. The use of pesticides will be difficult to cover the entire landscape, and will kill millions of endemic insects in the process.
- Mosquitoes are 100% invasive to Hawaii, meaning no species existed on the islands until brought by whaling ships in the 1800s. They do not play an important role in the ecosystem: they are not preferred by native insectivores nor are they significant pollinators for the island’s endemic flowers. Therefore, eradicating mosquitoes will not have negative impacts.
- Research and development of genetic engineering approaches, such as gene drives tailored to Hawaii’s needs, could offer a means of eradicating mosquitoes with the ability to scale up to whole landscapes with no collateral damage.
Gene drives are not without risks, and speakers were keen to advise caution about identifying dangers and designing mitigation strategies. However, the stakes are clear: without eradicating mosquitoes, the extinction of Hawaii’s endemic birds is inevitable.
September 4 – Workshop Session
“Genetic Rescue: Can new genomic tools solve conservation problems such as exotic wildlife diseases and destructive invasive species?”
At this session, speakers delved beyond on the topic of mosquito-borne diseases and birds to encompass more pressing problems for Hawaii’s native ecosystems and potential genomic solutions. Hawaii is home to a number of critical conservation issues that have proven extremely difficult, or impossible, to solve:
- A rapidly spreading invasive fungus (Ceratocystis fimbriata), referred to as “Rapid Ohi’a Death,” threatens Hawaii’s most important native tree, the ‘ōhi‘a. Since 2012, the fungus has killed hundreds of thousands of ‘ōhi‘a trees, a keystone species in the Hawaiian forest. A solution has yet to be found .
- 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 34 Hawaii-endemic forest birds and threaten 21 of the remaining 32. Climate change is compounding this problem
- 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.
Once again, it was standing room only as Sam ‘Ohukani’ōhi‘a Gon, III opened the Genetic Rescue workshop with a chant to Kū, the Hawaiian god of governance and beautifully illustrated the significance of the ʻōhiʻa tree, known as ʻōhiʻa lehua, to the indigenous people of Hawaii. The ʻōhiʻa is a keystone species to Hawaii’s forests – the first colonizer of new lava flows and the dominant tree from lowlands to high peaks, ranging in size from a hundred feet high to just six inches tall in the wettest bogs. The ʻōhiʻa has coevolved with Hawaii’s honeycreepers, and like the honeycreepers it now faces extinction due to disease: a fungal blight.
The fungus (known as Rapid Ohi’a Death) has killed hundreds of thousands of trees since 2012. On Hawaii Island, 47,000 acres, representing 9% of its surveyed forest, are infected – an increase from 38,000 acres in February 2016. The loss of this tree would mean the collapse of Hawaii’s native forests. Given the significant impact of this disease, all conservation tools need to be explored. With the use of state-of-the-art genomics, there may be hope to better diagnose and maybe save the trees. One powerful option is to use genomic analysis to identify whether any trees have developed resistance to the disease. If so, it might lead to a potential cure.
Like the ʻōhiʻa tree, the American chestnut tree suffered from an invasive fungal blight, causing its virtual extinction, But researchers at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry have restored the chestnut’s genetic ability to combat the fungus using a wheat gene. Andy Newhouse, of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project, shared how the engineered chestnut trees are now able to produce an enzyme that neutralizes the effects of the blight – resulting in trees that are 100% immune to the disease. Because of this effort, eastern America’s once most abundant tree is poised to make a comeback, a hundred years after their obliteration from the landscape. A similar method could save the ʻōhiʻa tree.
The workshop concluded with the most notorious island conservation problem – invasive rodents. Island Conservation scientist Karl Campbell outlined the need for eradicating invasive species on islands: 40% of the world’s endangered species live on islands all threatened by invasive species, especially rodents. Ecosystems have shown extraordinary resilience once invasive species are removed. On Pinzon Island in the Galapagos, the resident giant tortoise species successfully hatched offspring for the first time in over a century, just 6 months after invasive rats were removed from the landscape. That success took years of planning and execution, with much labor devoted to mitigating the risk posed by the agent of rodent eradication: brodifacoum toxicants.
Rodenticides are the only efficient tool that conservationists have to eliminate rodents on islands, but collateral damage to native wildlife and potential lingering toxicity in the environment are the side effects of its use. It is also a limited tool for scaling up to the large landscapes of many islands in dire need of rodent removal.
For this reason, Island Conservation is developing gene drive techniques to employ on islands in the future, which will skew sex ratios of the invasive rodent population. The basic concept is that when gene drive male rodents are introduced to an island their sex-determining genes will spread each generation, turning the entire population male and creating a final generation. There are no toxic side effects to native wildlife in the process and a system that can scale up to large landscapes.
Kevin Esvelt, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, presented his laboratory research on self-limited gene drives, which he hopes to eventually employ with New England white-footed mice to spread a rare, but native, gene throughout the population, which will reduce transmission of Lyme disease. Esvelt heads the Media Lab’s Sculpting Evolution group, which invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. The group carefully and openly develops and tests its methods, focusing on addressing difficult ecological problems for the benefit of humanity and the natural world.
Revive & Restore’s two sessions were sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the National Park Service, with additional support from the American Bird Conservancy, San Diego Zoo Global, the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.