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Saving ForestsCould Genetically Modified Organisms Help Conserve Biodiversity?

Could Genetically Modified Organisms Help Conserve Biodiversity?

Could Genetically Modified Organisms Help Conserve Biodiversity?

The second in a series examines GMOs intentionally released into the wild

Last week, I introduced what I call “first generation” genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – altered bacteria for diverse, mostly indoor purposes – and “second generation” ones – GM crops and agricultural animals. Here, I describe third generation GMOs, that are those that might be intentionally placed into natural environments, where they’d live, reproduce, and transmit their modified genes to offspring. These GMOs might be created through either older, transgenic methods that transfer genes from one other species or newer CRISPR-based methods that more precisely edit genes.

Oxitec GM mosquitoes are released within the Cayman Islands. Photo by Taneos Ramsay of the Cayman Compass.

Just a few potential uses can make clear. Some applications would aim to enhance human well-being, particularly by combating disease vectors. Mosquitoes are arguably the world’s deadliest animal through their transmission of various diseases, most significantly malaria. A few of a mosquito population (that’s, those organisms inside a given local ecological community) could possibly be genetically modified to not transmit the disease, to not bite humans, or to locally reduce their numbers. For instance, the UK company Oxitec has developed male GM mosquitoes whose baby girl – that are the one ones that bite – don’t survive to maturity and whose male offspring propagate this genetic infertility after they mate with non-modified females. Over time, the local population shrinks in size on account of a scarcity of females. Oxitec has tested its GM mosquitoes outdoors in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands, and the corporate wishes to achieve this in Texas and the Florida Keys. Similarly, MIT researchers are consulting with residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, islands off the Massachusetts coast, regarding the possible release of GM mice that might not transmit Lyme disease. In each cases, some environmental advocates oppose these releases, which regulators would want to approve. For instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency considers Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes to be pesticides, requiring an experimental use permit.

Third generation GMOs could possibly be used also for sustainability objectives, including the conservation of biodiversity. One easy application can be to genetically label some organisms with an identifiable genetic “bar code” to trace their movements, population dynamics, and gene flow. One other can be to eradicate invasive alien species, that are one in all the leading drivers of biodiversity loss. For instance, a foreign mosquito in Hawaii has introduced and is spreading avian malaria there, threatening the honeycreeper (a bird). These mosquito populations could possibly be modified or suppressed by the techniques described above.

Perhaps more interesting is the prospect of genetically modifying species to assist them adapt to changing conditions. An invasive fungal disease appears to be the leading cause behind recent declines in amphibian populations, while marine corals suffer from a double onslaught of warming and acidifying water brought on by anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. These species could – at the least in principle – be genetically modified to withstand the disease or to thrive in the brand new conditions. Moreover, nearly or perhaps fully extinct species could possibly be revived. The American chestnut tree dominated eastern forests through the late nineteenth century, but an invasive fungal blight destroyed them, with survivors only in human-created forests within the western US. After thirty years of efforts, scientists on the State University of Recent York have developed a GM chestnut and asked the three relevant federal regulatory bodies for approval. The Revive and Restore organization is more ambitious, using a mixture of tools – selective breeding, cloning, genetic modification, and ecosystem restoration – to bring back a handful of nearly and truly extinct species. (Yes, this includes the woolly mammoth.)

These ecocentric applications raise normative and legal questions quite different from previous GMOs, which were mainly for humans’ profit. Biotechnology has often been presented as a threat to biodiversity, yet a few of these third generation GMOs could help conserve biodiversity, presenting a tension in governance. Environmentalists appear split on these issues, with some supporting GMOs for conservation, some opposing, and most quiet.

In my next posts, I’ll describe fourth generation GMOs and global governance thereafter.


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