When scientists succeeded in cloning the endangered black-footed ferret in December 2020, they took a giant step toward a renewed global goal to battle climate change and biodiversity loss.
The triumph of cloning both fulfilled the founding objective of Earth Day and terrified its most ardent supporters. Conservationists took a step ahead in protecting a beloved species by utilizing biotechnology to achieve one of conservation’s most important goals: restoring genetic variety to a species with a limited gene pool. They accomplished it, however, by “tinkering” with life’s essential machinery. This initiative fulfilled Gaylord Nelson, the originator of Earth Day and namesake of the Nelson Institute, to foster “an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Would Nelson have seen and appreciated this advancement? We think so. We’ll have to think outside the box to restore biodiversity.
While none of this negates the necessity for traditional conservation methods such as habitat protection and land management, we can and should address the approaching extinction problem with the same aggressive and quick response that was employed to combat COVID-19. The power of new technology can be unleashed with a creative mindset and an open mind.
We have years of conservation experience between us. One of us is an environmental researcher, while the other is Revive & Restore’s co-founder and executive director. We recognize the importance of preserving and restoring biodiversity, so we’ve joined forces with some of the world’s top molecular biologists, technologists, conservation biologists, conservation organizations, ethicists, and thought leaders to demand “Intended Consequences” to ensure that we can safely use all of the tools at our disposal to help us turn the tide on extinction.
Intended Consequences is a new, inclusive, ethical, and rational paradigm for imagining daring conservation actions and securely leveraging biotechnology to win the extinction race.
Some people are concerned about the unforeseen implications of tampering with nature, such as using genetic technology or traditional conservation-restoration methods. Alarming biodiversity loss, on the other hand, suggests that we should be focusing more on the game-changing good effects that will arise from a focus on Intended Consequences. We will inevitably witness the chilling effect of mass extinction if we worry constantly about unintended repercussions and languish in uncertainty. As we contemplate biotechnology options and assess the risks of doing nothing, we are at a crossroads that requires daring and action.
Without help, the American chestnut, for example, will perish. These trees grew in infinite stands in the Eastern Woodlands of North America before the industrial revolution. A nonnative fungal blight devastated an estimated four billion trees in the United States by the 1940s. Smaller trees created denser stands when the American chestnuts disappeared from Eastern woods. This transformation resulted in a new ecological state with degraded ecosystems, dwindling wildlife populations, inferior forest products, and decreased biodiversity.
A group of forward-thinking scientists began experimenting in the lab toward the end of the twentieth century. They inserted a wheat gene into the genome of the American chestnut, which was otherwise unmodified. The transgenic tree that results isn’t a quirk of nature. It’s a 100% American chestnut that now generates an enzyme that breaks down the poison of the blight. It may coexist in settings where the invasive fungus thrives because of this single additional gene.
This seemingly drastic solution is a beautiful illustration of biotechnology’s potential to provide species-saving actions. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina has agreed to plant blight-resistant chestnut trees on tribe grounds, and American chestnut aficionados want seedlings to plant in their yards. This initial enthusiasm, however, is simply a portion of the process.
The Intended Consequences framework must be used to guide responsible action, which includes a thorough risk assessment and detailed investigations to see how the planned intervention would affect the ecosystem. Transgenic chestnut leaves that fall into woodland pools are now known to be safe for wood frog tadpoles to ingest. The American chestnut project is currently being reviewed by the federal regulatory system; if approved, it will be the first to show how well researched genetic manipulations might promote cohabitation in the wild.
The conservation of both the American chestnut and the black-footed ferret began in the lab in the twenty-first century. New biotechnologies were combined with decades of natural history knowledge and diligent investigation to produce responsible genetic manipulations. Despite the fear engendered by science fiction horror stories, biotechnology is only another instrument in the serious fight against extinction. The American chestnut is a key proof of concept, and the black-footed ferret project is currently ongoing, but all endangered species require these beneficial outcomes. In nature, we want to see robust wild populations grow.
Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, biotechnology will be used to aid in the conservation of coral reefs. Scientists are already looking into how genetic interventions could help corals adapt to changing temperatures. And, with Intended Consequences in mind, Revive & Restore is developing the Advanced Coral Toolkit to develop new tools for reef restoration, such as stem cells, probiotics, and quick diagnostics. We may lose coral reefs forever if we do not interfere.
Conservation is finally ready to embrace the same entrepreneurial spirit that drives problem-solving in other sectors. An international group of scientists and conservationists agreed, and they just published the Intended Consequences Statement as the first step toward responsible conservation action that follows in the footsteps of the black-footed ferret and the American chestnut tree.
The Intended Consequences framework includes insights acquired from decades of effective conservation work and steers us away from despair and toward hope, enabling us to anticipate solutions to intractable conservation challenges and motivating us to take action. It’s something on which we can all agree.
This is an article of analysis and opinion.