To avert mass extinction, is genetic engineering the best option?

Before genetic engineering can be seriously entertained as a tool to rescue biodiversity, conservationists need to agree on the types of scenario that might be appropriate, and where they are likely to fail or introduce more serious problems, the researchers warn. (Credit: Bob AuBuchon/Flickr)

With estimates that 15 to 40 percent of the world’s species will be lost over the next 40 years due to warming and habitat loss, researchers are considering the option of a genetic rescue.

The technique would involve “rescuing a target population or species with adaptive alleles, or gene variants, using genetic engineering,” write Josh Donlan, Cornell visiting fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology, and his colleagues.

The method is “an increasingly viable . . . option, which we call ‘facilitated adaptation,’ [but it] has been little discussed,” adds Donlan, co-author of an article about the topic published in the journal Nature.

Three options

To avert mass extinctions, the group thinks that three options, each with its own set of challenges, complications, and risks, exist. They are:

  • Animals or plants could be crossed with individuals of the same species from better-adapted populations to introduce adapted alleles into threatened animal or plant populations.
  • Direct transfers from populations with adapted genomes could be introduced into the threatened populations of the same species.
  • Genes from a well-adapted species could be incorporated into the genomes of endangered species.

The Nature commentary draws from a recent workshop, “Ecological and Genomic Exploration of Environmental Change,” that occurred in March, where scientists met to understand issues surrounding climate change adaptation. In those spirited discussions, a hot question emerged: Is managed relocation of animal and plant species really the only approach to averting extinction? Instead of moving plant and animal populations, could genes be moved into populations?

“Thus, the term ‘facilitated adaptation’ was born,” says Donlan.

Averting climate change altogether would be a preferable—albeit unlikely—outcome. The scientists fear that implementing genetic solutions could potentially deter other climate change action.

“A serious concern is that even the possibility of using genetic-engineering tools to rescue biodiversity will encourage inaction with regard to climate change. Before genetic engineering can be seriously entertained as a tool for preserving biodiversity, conservationists need to agree on the types of scenario for which facilitated adaptation, managed relocation, and other adaptation strategies might be appropriate, and where such strategies are likely to fail or introduce more serious problems,” they write.

Source: Cornell University