When scientists achieved the incredible feat of cloning the critically endangered black-footed ferret in December 2020, they made a leap towards the renewed global priority of combating climate change and biodiversity loss. The cloning success fulfilled both Earth Day’s founding vision and terrified its strongest proponents. By using biotechnology to achieve one of the most important goals of conservation – to restore the genetic diversity of a species with a limited gene pool – conservationists took a step forward in saving a beloved species. But they did this by “tinkering” with the core mechanisms of life themselves. These efforts brought about the vision of Earth Day founder and namesake of the Nelson Institute, Gaylord Nelson, to “promote an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living beings.” Had Nelson recognized and recognized this progress estimated? believe that. To restore biodiversity, we have to be innovative.
While all of this does not avoid the need for traditional conservation measures such as habitat protection and land management, we can and should address the looming extinction crisis with the same bold and swift approach that is used to combat COVID-19. A creative ethos and an open mind can unleash the power of new technology.
Together we have years of experience in nature conservation. One of us is an environmental researcher and the other is a co-founder and CEO of Revive & Restore. We understand the importance of sustaining and restoring biodiversity, and we work with the world’s leading molecular biologists, technologists, conservation biologists, conservation organizations, ethicists and thought leaders to demand “Intended Consequences” that will help us keep all available data safe to use tools that can provide the advantage we need to turn the tide of species loss.
Intended Consequences is a new, inclusive, ethical and rational framework that will help us introduce bold conservation interventions and use biotechnology safely to win the race against extinction.
Some people worry about that unintentionally Consequences of interference with nature, including the use of genetic engineering and traditional restoration. However, the alarming loss of biodiversity tells us that we need to focus more on the breakthrough positive effects of focusing on the intended consequences. As we fret about unintended consequences and wallow in uncertainty, we inevitably witness the terrifying results of mass extinction. Our current pivot demands courage and drive from us when we think about biotechnological solutions and weigh the consequences of doing nothing.
The American chestnut, for example, will not survive without intervention. Before the Industrial Revolution, these trees formed endless stands in the eastern forests of North America. In the 1940s, non-native fungal rot killed an estimated four billion trees across the country. When the eastern forests lost American chestnuts, smaller trees formed denser stands. This shift resulted in a new ecological state characterized by impoverished habitats, shrinking wildlife populations, and inferior forest products and reduced biodiversity.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a team of innovative scientists began experimenting in the laboratory. They added a gene from wheat to the otherwise unchanged genome of the American chestnut. The resulting transgenic tree is no nature freak. It’s a 100 percent American chestnut that is now producing an enzyme that breaks down the venom of tuber rot. Because of this single additional gene, it can coexist in landscapes where the invasive fungus also thrives.
This seemingly radical solution is an elegant example of the potential of biotechnology to enable conservation interventions. American chestnut fans want to plant saplings in their gardens, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina is committed to planting these genetically modified chestnut trees on tribal land. But that early enthusiasm is only part of the process.
Responsible interventions must be guided by the framework of the intended impact, including a thorough risk assessment and detailed studies to test how the proposed intervention could affect the ecosystem. We now know that transgenic chestnut leaves that fall in forest pools are safe for tadpoles to eat. The federal regulatory system is currently reviewing the American Chestnut Project; If successful, it will be the first to show how carefully thought out genetic manipulation can enable coexistence in the wild.
The preservation solutions of the 21st century began in the laboratory with both the American chestnut and the black-footed ferret. Responsible genetic interventions resulted from the combination of new biotechnologies with decades of knowledge of natural history and careful research. Despite the caution cultivated by fictional horror stories, biotechnology is just another tool in this serious race against extinction. The American chestnut is a critical proof of concept and the black-footed ferret project is now underway, but we need these positive results for all endangered species. We want resilient wild populations to thrive in nature.
Perhaps in the not too distant future we will see the use of biotechnology to save coral reefs. Scientists are already studying how genetic engineering could be used to adjust corals’ temperature tolerance. And with the intended consequences in mind, Revive & Restore is developing the Advanced Coral Toolkit to develop new tools, including stem cells, probiotics, and rapid diagnostics, that will expand our reef recovery capabilities. If we don’t intervene, we could lose coral reefs forever.
Conservation is finally ready to embrace the spirit of innovation that drives problem solving in other areas. An interdisciplinary group of scientists and conservationists from around the world agreed and recently jointly drafted the Intended Consequences Statement to create an initial framework for responsible conservation interventions that follow in the footsteps of the black-footed ferret and the American chestnut.
The Intended Consequences framework incorporates the lessons of decades of successful nature conservation work and guides us away from despair and into an optimistic future, encourages us to present solutions to apparently unsolvable conservation problems and inspires us to act. We all agree on that.
This is an opinion and analysis article.