Renee LaFort (Pre-Vet), Kersten Laveroni (NRC), Mariam Tiraspolsky (PSIS) University of Massachusetts Amherst
Plants and animals are very much like us humans; they are not immortal and therefore after a specific point in their life, will cease to exist for future generations. We need to ask ourselves if we want our grandchildren and their children to be deprived of the spectacular creatures and plants that have contributed to our lives and the biosphere. There is a continuously increasing number of animal and plant species that are becoming endangered around the world. Studies report that nearly 10,000 species go extinct every year (WWF, 2013). The Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is the most endangered of the world’s five rhinoceros species, and is a prime example of a species who may not exist in the future. There is only an estimated 40-60 animals remaining in Indonesia, due to poaching for their horn which is used to make Asian folk medicines (Guernsey, 2013). Even though this species is protected, it may not have a large-enough breeding population to prevent the species from going extinct (Guernsey, 2013). The Amur Leopard is a critically endangered species native to southern Russia (WWF, 2013). There are only around 30 of these solitary cats left in the entire world, due to hunters illegally invading their habitat and killing them for their beautifully spotted fur that they sell for only $500-$1,000 (WWF, 2013). Hundreds of endangered species, like the Javan rhinoceros and the Amur leopard, around the world will continue to disappear if change is not implemented. Introduction to Endangered species and GM tech
According to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a species is classified as endangered when it is in danger of becoming extinct throughout its range (USC Title 16, Sect 1532, 1973). Presently, our world is undergoing one of the largest mass extinctions that encompasses a large range of species. There are a few climate change scenarios that scientist are using to estimate future extinction of species, corresponding with the carbon dioxide emission scenarios. The minimal-change scenario shows that 18% of species are committed to extinction (Thomas et al., 2004, p. 145). The maximum-change scenario demonstrates that about 35% of species will no longer have a place on this planet (Thomas et al., 2004, p. 145). Both percentages could be decreased with the development and usage of new technology.
Human Impact on Species
The infamous story of the passenger pigeon is an example of how humans can drive species to extinction. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) once constituted approximately 40% of the total bird population in the United States, where some flocks were estimated at 2 billion birds (Pollock, 2003, p. 97). Hunting practices began in the 1820’s and continued throughout the century. The passenger pigeon was over exploited by hunters and their numbers were drastically decreasing by the late 1890’s. In 1897, a bill was introduced that called for a hunting season but current numbers were not high enough to sustain the bird population (Pollock, 2003, p. 97). Preservation efforts came too late; the species was officially labeled extinct in 1914 (Pollock, 2003, p. 98). Thankfully, our society is currently developing technologies to prevent the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon from happening. However, species are not only being hunted to extinction but also being killed by the changing environment around them.
According to the fifth IPCC (2013), greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, have all increased dramatically since 1750 due to human activity. Main practices causing this increase include deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. For example, in many parts of the world, forests are being torn down and converted into agriculture (Tawil, 2012, p.8). Approximately 12% of the global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to this type of deforestation (Tawil, 2012, p.7). This increase is causing the average surface temperature to rise, leading to many other detrimental effects on the planet. More intense storms, shifting tree lines, and increased seasonality and sea-levels are some possible aftereffects of ongoing climate change (IPCC, 2013).
Climate change is making it more difficult for species to survive and multiply, and easier for invasive species and diseases to take over weakened native populations. Animal species that once thrived in niche habitats are forced to either acclimate, compete with more species for resources, move to a new habitat, or cease to exist due to drastic climate changes in their environment. For example, the snow leopard is facing extinction in the Himalayan Mountains. 30% of the snow leopard habitat is being lost due to a shifting treeline, and increasing temperatures are causing their alpine habitat to shrink,eliminating a place for the snow leopards to live (Forrest et al., 2012). While the snow leopard’s habitat diminishes, the habitat for invasive plants expands. Exotic vegetation such as broad leaf evergreens take advantage of milder winters, and eliminates native shrub covers in northern regions (Gian-Reto et al., 2002). Foreign pathogens make their way into northern climates which affect plant species that cannot evolve resistance fast enough (Anderson et al., 2004).
Although humans are trying to minimize the emissions of greenhouse gases by implementing solar panels, wind turbines and other green technology, the amount already present in the atmosphere is going to cause damage in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, progressive action is needed to address the rare species being harmed or displaced. We are arguing that by using genetic modification on endangered species, we would be able to repopulate and sustain decreasing populations through a continuously shifting environment.
Genetic Modification Technology
Genetic modification (GM) is a term applied to an organism whose genome is altered to express specific traits, or for the production of new desired biological products (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, para.1). Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a type of GM technology that transfers specific genes between diverse organisms and allows for the acquisition of novel traits that are unique from those inherited (Dunning Hotopp, 2011, para.2). Transfers that are vertically inherited have the potential to influence the evolution of animals (Dunning Hotopp, 2011, para.1). In conservation biology, HGT is used as an alternative to hybridization — it inserts specific improvement genes into an organism rather than introducing a variety of unnecessary new genes to a species (Syvanen, Kado, 2002). Among plants, HGT is commonly achieved using a bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens which integrates a Ti plasmid — a piece of its own code — into the host cell DNA (Syvanen, Kado, 2002). In nature, the bacterium performs this form of genetic modification as a means to modify the host to produce food for the bacterium (Syvanen, Kado, 2002). In the lab, the Ti plasmid is modified to carry new desired genes into a plant, modifying its genome to confer any other trait; from harsh weather tolerance to disease resistance (Nester, 2008, para.7). The earliest and most prominent use of HGT is in corn. It is the most commonly genetically modified organism; primarily for added size and pest resistance (Gewin, 2003). Among the non-agricultural modified plants are the poplars, which are actively used for phytoremediation (uptaking harmful pollutants from the ground), and as “lab rats” for the transformation of other trees (Polin et al., 2005; Jacobs, Dalgleish, Nelson, 2012). HGT is the classical genetic modification technique, the technology used whenever anyone worries about GM products. There are, however, more techniques and possibilities.
Cloning is another GM approach intended to improve declining population numbers of endangered species. This process of duplication is described as, “the process of generating a genetically identical copy of a cell or an organism”(Rugnetta, 2013, para.1). Most people are familiar with the cloned sheep named “Dolly”; the very first mammal to ever be successfully duplicated. To produce Dolly, “scientists used an udder cell from a six-year-old closely related Finn Dorset white sheep” (AnimalResearch.info, 2013, para.4). Scientists injected this cell into an unfertilized egg cell that came from a Scottish Blackface sheep, which had had its nucleus removed (AnimalResearch.info, 2013, para. 2). This newly developed embryo was cultured for six or seven days to ensure proper cell division and development, then implanted into a surrogate mother, another Scottish Blackface ewe (AnimalResearch.info, 2013, para.4). Dolly was born 5 months later and lived to mate and produce normal offspring in the traditional way, demonstrating that such cloned animals can reproduce (AnimalResearch.info, 2013, para.6). The production of Dolly was a major scientific achievement as it demonstrated that the DNA from adult cells, despite having specialized one particular type of cell, can be used to create or preserve an entire organism or population (AnimalResearch.info, 2013, para.2).
An example of using cloning technology to preserve an endangered species population is the case study of the Ovis orientalis musimon, commonly referred to as the wild Mouflon sheep (Loi et al., 2001, p. 962). The wild Mouflon is an endangered species of sheep that is still located in its original habitat: the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and Cyprus (Trivedi, 2001, para. 3). This sheep species is endemic to that particular area, therefore if that habitat is destroyed the sheep would have an extremely difficult time adapting and surviving in a new environment. Enforcing the use of GM cloning technology to preserve this species is crucial due to the isolation of these sheep in a single habitat.
Scientists used a cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to clone Mouflon sheep (Loi et al., 2001, p.963). This technique removes the nucleus of a somatic cell which contains the majority of the cell’s DNA, and transfers it into an unfertilized egg cell that has its own nuclear DNA removed (Stocum, 2013, para. 1). Scientists successfully cloned the wild Mouflon using oocytes (immature female egg cells) collected from a closely related, domesticated species, Ovis aries (Loi et al., 2001, p. 962). Scientists harvested oocytes from Ovis aries and implanted them into a domestic Mouflon sheep that was selected for its ability to support embryonic and fetal development (Loi et al., 2001, p. 962). From this cloning procedure, scientists established two pregnancies in the Ovis Aries sheep, and one normal Mouflon sheep baby was produced (Loi et al., 2001, p. 963).
Cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer, along with other basic assisted reproductive technologies, may offer an opportunity to save and expand the population of mammals like the Mouflon sheep. Technology like this cloning procedure, used in the assisted reproduction of the Mouflon sheep, is a prime example of how using new GM strategies for propagating an endangered animal species can be effective. Using techniques such as SCNT allows the original level of genetic diversity to be repaired by cloning. For example, if cell lines are collected [from a species] when population numbers are high, then the original level of genetic diversity might be restored by cloning in the event of a population collapse resulting from environmental disaster, pathological agents, or human pressures (Loi et al., 2001, p. 962).
One consequence of human activity on the environment can be seen not directly in changing temperatures, but in the forests that keep these temperatures stable. Global trade spreads many species of invasive plants and plant diseases around the world. Pathogens such as Cryphonectria parasitica, which affects the American Chestnut, has wiped out large portions of North American forests (Freinkel, 2009, p.81). This damage has caused numerous adjustments to entire ecosystems, and has hurt populations that depend on this tree for their livelihood — from wild animals that rely on them for food, to human groups that count on on the raw material this tree provides (Ellison et al., 2005).
The American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, is under the threat of extinction from the chestnut blight pathogen, Cryphonectria parasitica, since the early days of the last century (Jacobs, Dalgleish, Nelson, 2012). Chestnut blight was introduced to the North American continent around 1900 (ACCF, 2010, para.1). Since then, it is estimated that four billion American chestnuts died due to this infection (ACCF, 2010, para.1). The tree, which previously predominated the Eastern woods, was a keystone species in its environment. It returned copious amounts of nutrients into the soil each year by shedding leaves and nuts, and providing animals with food and shelter. Its disappearance from the forests altered the existing plant diversity, nutrient availability, and the ability for life to survive in the woods. Consequences of the loss of this keystone species ripple out to affect the entire ecosystem it once dominated.
Due to its significant importance to both humans and wildlife, as well as historical value, the chestnut is one of the primary targets of repopulation efforts. In order to bring it back, either the pathogen must lose its virulence, or the chestnut must develop resistance to the pathogen’s effects. Since American Chestnut reforestation efforts are more directly dependent on the tree, breeding resistance is currently the focus of conservation efforts. Genetic modification through specific gene transfer is preferable over traditional resistance breeding, because it introduces less non-native genes into a population (Adams et al., 2002). Traditional breeding methods expose the tree bred for resistance to the entire genome of the plant it is hybridized with (Adams et al., 2002). This introduces the possibility of changes beyond just added resistance, such as phenotype and nutrition requirements. Genetic modification through gene transfer selects for resistance genes specifically, leaving any genes that might alter the tree’s core identity out (Adams et al., 2002). Gene transfer also requires fewer tree generations to breed in resistance; this speeds up the process, yielding resistant trees in a shorter span of time. Traditional resistance breeding requires a period of introgression, which is the repeated backcrossing of hybrids with the parent until the desired genes are successfully introduced to the gene pool (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013). Introgression takes a number of generations to backcross the desired traits into an organism. Through gene transfer, not only will the chestnut be minimally modified for the greatest effect, it will also be ready for reintroduction sooner rather than later.
Transformation of C. dentata lines is done primarily using A. tumefaciens. Experiments using the faster, more direct microprojectile bombardment method were performed but the lines produced could not be grown into whole plants (Polin et al., 2005). Work with A. tumefaciens, on the other hand, proved to be more successful. The gene selected to support resistance is a wheat gene coding for oxalate oxidase production. Oxalate oxidase producing trees have varying degrees of resistance to diseases including C. parasitica (Liang et al., 2001). The gene, along with two marker genes, packaged as a binary vector, is introduced via A. tumefaciens strain EHA 105. C. dentata embryos are then inoculated with the bacterium, cultured on desiccation plates, and subcultured until only successfully transformed tissue remains (Polin et al., 2005, Welch et al., 2007); the transformed embryos are then grown into full, resistant trees. Transformation techniques of American Chestnut specimens are still being developed, and there is still some time until trials yield enough conclusive data for full scale reforestation. Until then, these modified chestnuts are the greatest hope for the survival of the species (Jacobs, Dalgleish, Nelson, 2012).
Many people are against genetically modifying any part of nature. They may deem it unethical, unnatural, and unhealthy for the modified species as well as against the well-being of species in the ecosystem. In some popular belief, genetic modification displays, “ a lack of respect for the complexity of nature as well as typifies the industrial imposition of uniformity on nature; and that by radically altering the biological basis of human nature, it will damage individuals and society (Human Genetic Alerts, 2004). Cloning in particular is a very debatable subject that has surfaced in mainstream society for over a decade. Its critics raise the question of whether the time and resources put into achieving a successful cloning make the investment worthwhile. Current success rates with nuclear transfer (cloning) in mammals for example, are very low (less than 0.1–5% of reconstructed embryos result in a live birth). Therefore, between 20 and 1000 nuclear transfers would need to be performed to achieve one viable offspring (Holt, 2004, p. 318). People in opposition to genetic modification believe individuals are sacrificed for analysis and that humans should not possess that kind of power over anything. Many believe that the moral costs of genetic modification outweigh the benefits.
According to the Canadian Council on Animal Welfare, genetic engineering technologies are described as inefficient and unpredictable (Ormandy, Dale, and Griffin, 2011). The inefficiency of some technologies is due to the fact that the technology is so new. Scientists are still working on getting around certain limitations, such as controlling the integration site of foreign DNA (Ormandy, Dale, and Griffin, 2011, para 25). At the same time, other technologies that do not possess so many limitations may result in mutations or other faults in the species genome (Ormandy, Dale, and Griffin, 2011, para 2). Because it is very difficult to predict the outcomes of some genetically modifying technology, scientists closely monitor specimens to prevent any welfare concerns (Ormandy, Dale, and Griffin, 2011, para 27). When the species proves to be free of any welfare issues, only then will scientists discuss reducing the level of monitoring (Ormandy, Dale, and Griffin, 2011).
People are not yet willing to accept that cloning and the transfer of genes across species are feasible processes nowadays. When they hear cloning, they think of dinosaurs running rampant in Jurassic Park; parallels to Frankenstein’s madness are made when the transfer of genes, from one species to another, is brought up. Others think that research involving genetic modification is a waste of time, energy, and money. However, scientists are proving that cloning can be successful and beneficial. Dolly the sheep was generated by researchers, and she was able to conceive and spawn offspring (AnimalResearch.info, 2013). A Mouflon sheep lamb was created which allows for the continuation of a genetic line to increase the solitary population of a sheep species. In nature, A. tumefaciens, among thousands of other bacteria, performs horizontal gene transfer unchecked. Harnessing this natural phenomenon to create helpful disease resistant mutants, rather than the tumors it causes when uncontrolled, is not mad science. It is a simple use of natural resources.
Clearly, GM is successfully able to produce a beneficial change in species populations and the environment, and for this reason it needs to be considered part of conservation strategies. Although it is expensive to use now, GM can help preserve genetic information from these endangered species with the hope of someday having the resources to reproduce specimens.
Given the success of the Mouflon and the hope for success of the American chestnut, we propose to take advantage of the genetic technology at our disposal. Using genetic modification, we can save critical species that are directly affected by environmental changes due to human effects on climate, and further enhance conservation efforts to save such species. Research grants from the National Science Foundation and private organizations can be utilized to make these technologies worthwhile. Without action, many species will be lost to future generations. The only evidence of these endangered species will be in textbooks, stories, and museums. Entire ecosystems, including our own, will need to adjust, not only to the shifting climate, but to the changing biota. Genetic modification may not solve the problem of extinction all by itself, but it is a good start.
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Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a type of genetic modification that involves the transfer of specific genes between diverse organisms. This allows for the acquisition of novel traits that may not have been inherited from the organism’s parent(s). HGT can occur naturally in certain bacteria and other microorganisms, but it can also be induced through laboratory techniques such as gene editing. HGT has the potential to create new and unique traits in organisms, which can be useful for a variety of applications. However, it is important to carefully consider the potential risks and ethical implications of genetic modification, including HGT. It is also important to ensure that any genetically modified organisms are properly regulated and tested to ensure their safety for both the environment and human consumption.