Could Genetic Manipulation Mitigate Man’s Mistakes?

Many species are currently threatened as a result of human-induced changes to the environment, such as habitat fragmentation1,2, invasive species spread3 and climate change4. It has been suggested that genetic manipulation of endangered species could mitigate some of the detrimental effects of these environmental changes5.

deforestation

Image showing habitat fragmentation due to logging in parts of Ontario’s southern boreal forest (2)

Selective breeding in captive populations and assisted migration in small, isolated natural populations can prevent inbreeding depression and keep genetic diversity high. Although this approach has proved to be successful in the past, for example when used on the Florida Panther5, several potential problems could occur, such as outbreeding depression, introduction of diseases and disruption of local adaptations5.

polar bear

Image showing impact of global warming on polar bears. As global warming increases the earth’s temperature, their natural habitat is disappearing, leading to a decrease in their population (6)

Genetic engineering can also be used to allow the transfer of single genes between members of the same or different species5. For example, disease resistance genes can be transferred to members of a vulnerable tree population, protecting them from introduced diseases, such as Dutch elm disease8. There are many concerns about the unknown consequences of the transfer of these genes to other organisms in the environment. Furthermore, genetic engineering requires detailed knowledge of the organism’s genome and expensive technology.

florida pantha

Image of a Florida panther. Assisted migration of members of a related subspecies, into a population of only 8 individuals successfully relieved inbreeding depression and loss of genetic diversity (7)

I do not think that genetically manipulating organisms to suit their environment is the most ethical way to approach these issues. Shouldn’t we be preventing the anthropogenic environmental changes that are causing the problems? Broad use of genetic manipulation may make people think that it is OK to continuously damage the environment, as each organism could be genetically manipulated to suit their current habitat. But this is not the case, as genetic manipulation is very expensive, time-consuming and potentially detrimental to the species of interest and other organisms in its habitat. I think that genetic manipulation should only be used in the form of selective breeding and assisted migration in severe situations, when a species is critically endangered. At the moment it does not seem that the consequences of genetic engineering are well understood and therefore I don’t think this method should be used in conservation. The money needed for genetic manipulation would, in most cases, be better spent on preventing the root cause of the environmental changes.

By Ellie Corsie

References

  1. Haddad, N. M., Brudvig, L. A., Clobert, J., Davies, K. F., Gonzalez, A., Holt, R. D., Lovejoy, T. E., Sexton, J. O., Austin, M. P., Collins, C. D., Cook, W. M., Damschen, E. I., Ewers, R. M., Foster, B. L., Jenkins, C. N., King, A. J., Laurance, W. F., Levey, D. J., Margules, C. R., Malbourne, B. A., Nicholls, A. O., Orrock, J. L., Song, D. & Townshend, J. R. (2015). Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth’s ecosystems.Science Advances1(2), e1500052.
  2. Bryce, E. (2015). Global Study Reveals the Extent of Habitat Fragmentation. Conservation. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/news/global-study-reveals-extent-habitat-fragmentation.
  3. Didham, R. K., Tylianakis, J. M., Hutchison, M. A., Ewers, R. M., & Gemmell, N. J. (2005). Are invasive species the drivers of ecological change?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20(9), 470-474.
  4. Thomas, C. D., Cameron, A., Green, R. E., Bakkenes, M., Beaumont, L. J., Collingham, Y. C., Erasmus B. F. N., Grainger, A., Hannah, L., Hughes, L., Huntley, B., Jaarsveld, A. S., Midgley, G. F., Miles, L., Ortega-Huerta, M. A., Peterson, A. T., Phillips, O. L.& Williams, S. E. (2004). Extinction risk from climate change. Nature, 427(6970), 145-148.
  5. Thomas, M.A., Roemer, G.W., Donlan, C.J., Dickson, B.G., Matocq, M. & Malaney, J. 2013. Gene tweaking for conservation. Nature. 501, 485-486.
  1. Polarbearsinternational.org,. (2015). Status and Threats | Polar Bears International. Retrieved 3 November 2015, from http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/about-polar-bears/status-and-threats
  2. Johnson, W.E., Onorato, D.P., Roelke, M.E., Land, E.D., Cunningham, M., Belden, R.C., McBride, R., Jansen, D., Lotz, M., Shindle, D., Howard, J., Wildt, D.E., Penfold, L.M., Hostetler, J.A., Oli, M.K. & O’Brien, S.J. 2010. Genetic Restoration of the Florida Panther. Science. 329, 5999, 1641-1645.
  1. Merkle, S. A., Andrade, G. M., Nairn, C. J., Powell, W. A., & Maynard, C. A. (2007). Restoration of threatened species: a noble cause for transgenic trees. Tree Genetics & Genomes,3(2), 111-118.
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