Back up genes from endangered species

2010-04-16

in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, Science, Security, The environment, The outdoors

Out in Svalbard there is a seed bank, buried in the permafrost. The idea is that it will serve as a refuge for plant species that may vanish elsewhere, perhaps because industrial monocrops (fields where only a single species is intentionally cultivated by industrial means) continue to expand as the key element of modern agriculture.

Perhaps there should be a scientific and conservational project to collect just the genes of some of the great many species our species is putting into peril: everything from primates to mycorrhizal fungi to marine bacteria. The data could be stored, and maybe put to use at some distant point where humanity at large decides that it is better to carefully revive species than to indifferently exterminate them.

For many creatures, the genes alone won’t really be enough, regardless of how good at cloning we become. An elephant or a chimp built up alone from cells would never really become and elephant or chimp as they exist today. Whether those alive now are socialized in a natural or an artificial environment, they will have had some context-sensitive socialization, which subsequently affected their mental life. It is plausible to say that elephants or chimps raised among their peers, living in the way they did thousands of years ago, will develop mentally in a manner that is profoundly different from elephants or chimps in captivity today, much less solitary cloned beings in the future. Those beings will be weird social misfit representatives of those species.

Still, it is better to have misfits than nothing at all. If there is anything human beings should really devote themselves to backing up with a cautious eye turned towards an uncertain future, it seems far more likely to be the genes of species our descendants may not be fortunate enough to know than the Hollywood movies that probably account for a significant proportion of all the world’s hard drives.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 16, 2010 at 8:53 pm

IF “there is anything human beings should really devote themselves to backing up with a cautious eye turned towards an uncertain future” THEN { “it seems far more likely to be” (the genes of species our descendants may not be fortunate enough to know) THAN (“the Hollywood movies” “which probably account for” “a significant proportion of all the world’s hard drives”) }

Emily April 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Interesting. Though, if the world becomes uninhabitable for them to live in the wild – then they would could be cloned and recreated only as science experiments and for zoos.

What is our responsibility to clones, in terms of life quality?

What do you see as the main purpose for preserving the genetic makeup of these animals being pushed to extinction?

Haakon April 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Emily, are you positing that just because clones are, as we know, soul-less half-animals we should spare any resource in their preservation?

I agree with what you’re saying about the preposterous hubris of mankind presuming it can make any shifts in nature’s inevitable self-destruction, but I this irreverence you’re showing for it’s carefully assembled genetic sequences is highly uncharacteristic, and sloppy.

Fremily April 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Haakonon,

Blessed be to the great mother Earth and her wind and water song. However, the dark times are turning on us. We must not preserve that which will only suffer on, unable to self sustain.

Do you propose that we keep them alive, only to use them, mere puppetry at our pleasure?

Magnificent Snakebird April 18, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Emerasla,

I am the death bicycle! All the animals crushed beneath me like little polyps and lychee fruit. Groan. Growl. Seven eyes for six glittering manbullets, plip plip drip for the hollow gods!

The dams! They are bursting with!

Yipping State Fish April 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

I see your point(s).

The question remains whether the death hand falls left or right on the wheel-time piece.

Anon April 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm

I want a cloneasaurus!

Milan April 18, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Though, if the world becomes uninhabitable for them to live in the wild – then they would could be cloned and recreated only as science experiments and for zoos.

To paraphrase General Buck Turgidson, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-industrial environments: one where you got millions of species killed and nothing to remember them by, and the other where you got backups of their genes at least.

Both outcomes are decidedly regrettable, but the latter seems better.

Emily April 18, 2010 at 5:06 pm

both outcomes are decidedly regrettable, but the latter seems better.

But why is it an important/better thing to do?

Milan April 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm

It seems a bit like saving the family photo album when the house burns down. You cannot save everything, but doing this one thing would not be so hard, so why not do it?

Tristan April 19, 2010 at 12:21 am

When is Google coming out with a seed and gene bank which automatically syncs with my gmail and google calendar?

. April 19, 2010 at 9:57 am

“THE mighty, shimmering Ginkgo towered over the shrine steps and, as legend has it, had stood witness to history being made in Japan for over 800 years. When it thudded to the ground in March, it was as if the nation shook. Visitors flocked to the ancient capital of Kamakura to pay their respects and take photos. “Rest in peace, old one. Your tale is now done,” sighed the writer of a blog, with tender poignancy.

In the Shinto faith, he patiently explains, nature is to gods and man what God is to nature and man in Western religions. So when scientists say they are cloning the tree’s gene, he believes they are really propagating a holy spirit. That is a sacred task. Only when he was assured that this was natural science, not the laboratory sort, did he feel comfortable enough to give his blessing.

But it is still a touchy issue. The Kanagawa prefecture has not only sought to revive the tree in the shrine’s grounds. It wants to plant offshoots elsewhere, possibly as a tourist attraction. Mr Yoshida is a bit scandalised. What’s more, he felt the old Ginkgo may have been trying to send a message by tumbling down. “So many people came, called and sent e-mails offering their condolences. Perhaps the tree fell to draw everyone’s attention away from their focus on materialism and money.” For all the materialism, trees are still touchingly revered in Japan. It is cherry-blossom season, a time of all-night sake-drinking parties under the sakura. Even salarymen take photos of the blossom to send to their girlfriends by mobile phone.”

BuddyRich April 19, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I think saving biodiversity is a worthwhile goal. Who knows what plant or animal gene sequence might harbour the cure for cancer or the common cold, if nothing synthetic can be created to do so.

By exterminating species both plant and animal we are erasing the results of an experiment thousands of years in the making.

Milan April 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Even if the gene sequences aren’t useful now, they may well become so in the future, especially as computers continue to improve.

If the sequences are saved and never prove useful, all that will be lost is the limited resources dedicated to their collection. On the other hand, if we find ourselves with technology that could usefully be paired with such data, but with no data to work with, far more value could potentially be lost.

Milan April 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm

It isn’t hard to imagine future computers that could search through the genomes of thousands or even millions of species, looking for information that could be helpful for us.

. April 30, 2010 at 8:36 am

World’s 2010 nature target ‘will not be met’

The world’s governments will not meet their internationally-agreed target of curbing the loss of species and nature by 2010, a major study has confirmed.

Virtually all species and ecosystems show continued decline, while pressures on nature are increasing, it concludes.

Published in the journal Science, the study confirms what conservationists have known for several years.

The 2010 target was adopted in 2002, but the scientists behind this study say implementation has been “woeful”.

“Our analysis shows that governments have failed to deliver on the commitments they made in 2002,” said research leader Stuart Butchart, from the UN Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (Unep-WCMC) and BirdLife International.

“Biodiversity is still being lost as fast as ever, and we have made little headway in reducing the pressures on species, habitats and ecosystems.”

Unep chief scientist Joseph Alcamo added: “Since 1970, we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and seagrasses by 20% and the coverage of living corals by 40%.

“These losses are clearly unsustainable.”

Frog genome holds out conservation promise

Scientists have published the first genome sequence from an amphibian.

Xenopus tropicalis, the western clawed frog, joins the list of sequenced organisms that includes chicken, horse, rat, yeast, platypus, and human being.

It has about 20,000 genes – about the same as a human – and scientists say it sheds new light on genetic evolution.

Conservationists say analysing the genes could lead to new ways of combating threats such as the often fatal fungal disease chytridiomycosis.

Presenting their results in the journal Science, the researchers also suggest it may lead to better understanding of the threat posed by endocrine-disrupting (“gender-bending”) chemicals, to which amphibians are especially sensitive.

. August 10, 2010 at 1:44 pm

“Meyer would have appreciated Givaudan’s Taste Treks. Since 1999, the company has conducted them in Africa, Latin America, and the Far East. The first expedition began at a large open-air market in Libreville, Gabon, and ended in a remote logging camp deep inside a rain forest known as the Forest of the Bees. The team spent weeks exploring the jungle floor, and combed the canopy in a hot-air balloon. Givaudan’s researchers sampled hundreds of species with the intention of translating their taste or fragrance into flavors, and even attempted to record the ambient aroma of the rain forest itself before sunset. (Givaudan’s equipment proved incapable of registering it.) The team identified a dozen plants as having commercial potential. Landolphia owariensis has been used for rubber, arrow poison, and drugs for treating epilepsy and dizziness; it bears an aromatic red-spotted fruit, and led to the invention of a Givaudan flavor called “jungle fruit.” The team also created “Gabonese pineapple” from the bristly orange berries of Diospyros mannii, a species akin to ebony. The researchers discovered varieties of tree bark that, when crushed into powder, tasted either like onion or like garlic, and they took samples of wild ginger containing aframodial and labda-8(17),12-diene-15,16-dial — molecules that were later analyzed in Givaudan’s laboratories and patented for their ability to intensify both the pungency of spicy foods and the cooling sensation that spearmint and peppermint create in your mouth. The compounds also enhance the taste of alcohol, making low-proof spirits seem stronger; recently, Givaudan put them to use in a well-known liqueur.”

. August 10, 2010 at 1:44 pm

“Saving the DNA and the viable cells of the world’s endangered animals”

The mission of the Frozen Ark Project is to collect, preserve and store tissue, gametes, viable cells and DNA from endangered animals. The project focuses on the thousands of animals that are threatened with extinction.

. September 14, 2010 at 3:00 pm

“ONLY eight specimens of the northern white rhino are left alive on the planet, and they are all in captivity. The handful that remained in the wild in Congo have not been seen in years; they are almost certainly dead. A final effort to save the sub-species earlier this year saw four northern whites shipped from a zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta conservancy on the Laikipia reserve in Kenya.

The senses of these rhinos had been dulled by the cold concrete of Slav zoo life. In Africa, by contrast, they found themselves under open skies, with wild browse, the trees filled with weaver birds, the red soil interrupted with termite mounds and the land sweeping away to the icy peak of Mount Kenya. In such an environment the hearing of the rhinos soon sharpened and their agility returned. “They became wild again,” says Berry White, a rhino expert who oversaw the move.

Yet the chances of saving the northern white are remote. Short of re-engineering it from frozen samples in the future, the best hope of preserving its genetic stock is to breed the last individuals with southern whites. That means the end of a creature that has probably been distinct for a million years. Indeed, the decline of the African rhino—which includes the black rhino as well as the white—is among the sorriest and most instructive tales in conservation. “

. November 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Vietnam confirmed that the last rhinoceros in the country was killed earlier this year, most likely by poachers. It was the last of its kind to have lived on the Asian mainland; a few dozen remain on Java. Other species of large mammals in Vietnam are in imminent danger of extinction, because of deforestation and illegal trade in wild-animal parts.

Milan November 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm

That’s really sad.

According to Wikipedia: “For most of the 20th century the continental black rhino was the most numerous of all rhino species. Around 1900 there were probably several hundred thousand living in Africa.”

. February 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Scientists put reef in deep freeze; Coral suspended in liquid nitrogen in effort to preserve Australian treasure

The arid plains fringing Australia’s desert centre are more suited to camels than blooms of coral, but here, hundreds of kilometres from the coast, a piece of the Great Barrier Reef has been put on ice.

Suspended in a liquid nitrogen chamber of -196 C, the 70 billion sperm and 22 billion coral embryos are part of an ambitious Australian project to preserve and perhaps one day regenerate the world-famous reef.

“We know the Great Barrier Reef is in deep, deep trouble because of a number of different things – global threats including climate change and acidification of waters as well as the warming of waters,” said the project’s director, Rebecca Spindler. “We will never have as much genetic diversity again as we do right now on the reef, this is our last opportunity to save as much as we possibly can.”

Spindler’s team is working with Hawaii-based Mary Hagedorn from the Smithsonian Institution to collect and freeze samples from the World Heritage-listed reef, a sprawling and vivid natural wonder visible from space.

In order to maximize the amount of reproductive cells – gametes – collected, the team cut away sections of the reef and took them back to land-based tanks to spawn, an event that only occurs for three days a year.

. March 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm

But the Anthropocene may actually extend back beyond recent centuries, Ms Kolbert argues. In the debate over the cause of the extinction of large, legendary creatures like mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses, she tends to blame people rather than the end of the most recent ice age. Humans even did away with the Neanderthals—after mating with them. “Does it have to end this way?” she asks, after touring a Californian facility that preserves the cells of vanishing species in vials. It is known as the “frozen zoo”.

. September 13, 2017 at 8:02 pm

He also thinks that the genomes could help him and other conservationists to pair the kakapo most efficiently, to maximize the genetic diversity of the species. For example, early studies showed that a male named Gulliver has versions of immune genes that are completely missing in all other kakapo—even his siblings. “Now, he’s a little more important,” says Digby. “We can’t give all of them the same level of attention, so Gulliver gets a little extra. If we’re trying artificial insemination, we’ll try with his sperm a little harder than his brothers.” The full genomes of every kakapo will probably reveal similar differences.

“If we could get the species to survive and repopulate, we could track the family tree of all individuals of the species from here onward,” says Jarvis. “It would be unprecedented.” And if the recovery efforts fail, and the kakapo does become extinct, having the genomes of all remaining individuals would be useful if future scientists attempt to resurrect the species, as many are trying to do for mammoths and passenger pigeons.

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