With estimates of losing 15 to 40 percent of the world’s species over the next four decades – due to climate change and habitat loss, researchers ponder in the Sept. 26 issue of Nature whether science should employ genetic engineering to the rescue.
The technique would involve “rescuing a target population or species with adaptive alleles, or gene variants, using genetic engineering,” write Josh Donlan, Cornell visiting fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology, and his colleagues. The method is “an increasingly viable … option, which we call ‘facilitated adaptation,’ [but it] has been little discussed,” they add.
To avert mass extinctions, the group thinks that three options, each with its own set of challenges, complications and risks, exist. They are:
- Animals or plants could be crossed with individuals of the same species from better-adapted populations to introduce adapted alleles into threatened animal orplant populations.
- Direct transfers from populations with adapted genomes could be introduced into the threatened populations of the same species.
- Genes from a well-adapted species could be incorporated into the genomes of endangered species.
The Nature commentary draws from a recent National Science Foundation-funded workshop, “Ecological and Genomic Exploration of Environmental Change,” in March, where scientists met to understand issues surrounding climate change adaptation. In those spirited discussions, a hot question emerged: Is managed relocation of animal and plant species really the only approach to averting extinction? Instead of moving plant and animal populations, could genes be moved into populations? “Thus, the term ‘facilitated adaptation’ was born,” said Donlan.