What To Do About “Overkill Conservation”
This is your friendly reminder that dinosaurs are not going to be coming back anytime soon, but the imaginative science behind this idea is currently bringing back some other near-extinct species. Yes! In case you missed it, 2020 saw the birth of the first cloned black-footed ferret. This marked the first successful attempt to clone species in the brink of extinction using frozen cell lines, and consequently, our expectation around species conservation in the coming years.
Species cloning is one of a wealth of recent cutting-edge approaches to save species on the brink of extinction. Gene editing, drones to monitor population numbers, satellite images to track and count whales, carbon capture technology, and many more approaches are becoming more and more feasible. However the technology is oftentimes so costly that I’ve dubbed them “overkill conservation”.
These overkill approaches are not that overkill at some point. For tracking whales, I think it is “cheaper” to use satellite images rather than deploying logistics to do the same scale of monitoring the satellite can do. Drones are probably also “cheaper” and less invasive than arranging a team for direct observation in the forest, especially when there are 90 degree cliffs involved every ten steps of your way.
When messing around with genetics though, there is always the ethics side. The question of whether we should do or not do something despite our ability to do it. This will determine the amount of support from the public and government for a certain endeavour. Despite what Jurassic Park may suggest, normally funding for a project only arrives when the ethics questions have been answered.
So let’s have a quick look at two very costly approaches to conservation.
Let’s freeze them and bring them back later!
Apparently, there are no questions asked about whether we should freeze living beings to bring them back to life later on in the future. There are several projects that have already collected large reserves of species:
- The ‘Doomsday Vault’ (formally called Svalbard Global Seed Vault) preserves various plants’ seeds underground in the Arctic,
- The Frozen Ark that has been jointly managed by the Zoological Society of London, the Natural History Museum and University of Nottingham in the UK since 2004,
- San Diego’s Frozen Zoo in the US, which has been around since 1972.
Although the term “Frozen Zoo” might often be used to refer to the San Diego version (it is the oldest and largest) this term has now been widely used by various similar attempts to freeze cell lines of many species in the goal of bringing them back in the future through cloning.
The San Diego Zoo is actually the institute that made the cloning of the black-footed ferret I mentioned earlier possible. When they decided to freeze a cell line of a dead wild black-footed ferret in 1988, the technology to bring those cell lines into a new individual did not exist. They did it anyway. The ferret baby is named “Elizabeth Ann”, and looking healthy since she was “born” in December 2020 until the news stole headlines in early 2021.
So how does it work? Freezers are reliable gadgets to preserve your groceries, and apparently also near-extinct species. Yet freezing cells to ensure that they can still work like a living cell when they are thawed later is another thing, which is why the technology took so long to develop (if you’d like more detail, check out the Wikipedia page linked below).
Read More: Cryoconservation of animal genetic resources
The facilities for cryopreservation and cloning are quite costly. My country, Indonesia, still has a problem transporting COVID-19 vaccines around the region as there are not many facilities that enable us to store anything at -80°C (the temperature required to preserve the mRNA structure within the vaccine). There is also the issue of insufficient power supply in smaller islands that require some settlements in the area to have their electricity cut at certain times. So you can see why cryopreservation is a luxurious conservation option that is only feasible in richer countries with much more reliable facilities.
If I am ever to propose my government to have their own cryopreservation and cloning facilities to save endangered species, the proposal may not see the light of government funding anytime soon. People will see this effort as “overkill”, if not completely unnecessary. The money could be better used to protect habitat and enforce hunting regulations. If you have money to clone a rhino, you might as well attempt more on feeding the poor or solve human rights issues.
Another “overkill conservation” method that will be treated somewhat the same as cloning will be the gene-editing approach. With the advance of CRISPR-Cas technology (the enzyme that increases the effectiveness of gene editing) editing animal or plant genes to help them adapt to changing environments is becoming a possibility. Making a population’s immune system stronger or more adaptive to drought stress, for example, might be not so far off. There are ideas of gene drive: introducing new genes to a population to control the genetic development of said population. The idea is that you edit the gene of one individual, release it to the wild, wait for the new gene to be inherited by the next offspring. The idea is very tempting to control for invasive species and vector-borne diseases that threaten biodiversity.
While there’s still a lot of work to be done before we know exactly how genes behave in a population, the idea of gene drive is intriguing and scary at the same time. There are still many unknowns on what causes a population to persist in the face of low genetic variability or intense environmental stress. Assuming questions around making the gene fully functional and not detrimental to the individual are all answered and known, we should still be wary of the impact to the population of other species. Ecosystem is one intermingled messy stuff; you change one, you affect the other.
Forgetting prevention for the sake of the cure
The danger of the seemingly feasible cutting-edge technology is unconsciously cultivating the idea that we don’t need to act to save species now, because we can fix any damage to biodiversity later. No more tigers? Don’t worry about their habitat, we can always clone more later. Invasive fish species due to lack of monitoring? Nah, gene-editing will be cheap later; we can wait a bit more to start eradication programs.
In the end, whether we should or should not engage in high-tech overkill conservation really depends on the discourse among people. Looking at genetic diversity of inbred cheetahs was not even considered as the problem when breeding efforts failed before the 1980s. The idea of moving endangered cougars across the US was also unthinkable until it proved to help the Florida panther prevail in present times. The thing about cutting-edge techniques are they are cutting the boundaries of our current understanding, and sometimes we are not confident what will happen after that boundary is cut.
This is where a dialogue is needed, to enable us to reflect upon what is it that matters for humanity and doesn’t. A central tenet of environmental sociology is that our understanding of the sociological impacts of our technology usually can’t keep up with the technology itself. More dialogue with and among the public would go along way to solving this issue. We may come up with different conclusions about these species, but when this happens, the room for dialogue should still remain open from any side.
Sabhrina Gita Aninta is a conservation geneticist currently pursuing her PhD at Queen Mary University of London to understand how genome-wide variation of the endemic pigs and buffalos from Southeast Asia could assist their conservation. Follow her Twitter here for an update of her work, along with a mix of conservation, biodiversity, evolution, but mostly various rants and random stuffs in Indonesian and English. You can find more of her work at Ecology for the Masses at her profile.