For anyone who has had to study geography at some point in their education, you’d likely be familiar with the idea of river courses drawn on a map. They’re so important, in fact, that they are often the delimiting factor in the edges of countries, states or other political units. Water is a fundamental requirement of all forms of life and the riverways that scatter the globe underpin the maintenance, structure and accumulation of a large swathe of biodiversity.
Earlier in the year, I had made a comment that, as part of the natural evolution of this blog, I would try to change up the writing format every now and then to something a little more personal, emotional and potentially derivative from science. I must confess that this is one of those weeks, as it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for me. So, sorry in advance for the potentially self-oriented, reflective nature of this piece.
Contrastingly, sometimes we might also use genetic information to do the exact opposite. While so many species on Earth are at risk (or have already passed over the precipice) of extinction, some have gone rogue with our intervention. These are, of course, invasive species; pests that have been introduced into new environments and, by their prolific nature, start to throw out the balance of the ecosystem. Australians will be familiar with no shortage of relevant invasive species; the most notable of which is the cane toad, Rhinella marina. However, there are a plethora of invasive species which range from notably prolific (such as the cane toad) to the seemingly mundane (such as the blackbird): so how can we possibly deal with the number and propensity of pests?
Tools for invasive species management
There are a number of tools at our disposal for dealing with invasive species. These range from chemical controls (like pesticides), to biological controls and more recently to targeted genetic methods. Let’s take a quick foray into some of these different methods and their applications to pest control.
The potential secondary impact of biological controls, and the degree of unpredictability in how they will respond to a new environment (and how native species will also respond to their introduction) leads conservationists to develop new, more specific techniques. In similar ways, viral and bacterial-based controls have had limited success (although are still often proposed in conservation management, such as the planned carp herpesvirus release).
The better we understand invasive species and populations from a genetic perspective, the more informed our management efforts can be and the more likely we are to be able to adequately address the problem.
Managing invasive pest species
The impact of human settlement into new environments is exponentially beyond our direct influences. With our arrival, particularly in the last few hundred years, human migration has been an effective conduit for the spread of ecologically-disastrous species which undermine the health and stability of ecosystems around the globe. As such, it is our responsibility to Earth to attempt to address our problems: new genetic techniques is but one growing avenue by which we might be able to remove these invasive pests.
Note: For some clear, interesting presentations on the topic of de-extinction, and where some of the information for this post comes from, check out this list of TED talks.
The current conservation crisis
The stark reality of conservation in the modern era epitomises the crisis disciplinethat so often is used to describe it: species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and despite our best efforts it appears that they will continue to do so. The magnitude and complexity of our impacts on the environment effectively decimates entire ecosystems (and indeed, the entire biosphere). It is thus our responsibility as ‘custodians of the planet’ (although if I had a choice, I would have sacked us as CEOs of this whole business) to attempt to prevent further extinction of our planet’s biodiversity.
There’s one catch (well, a few really) with genetic rescue: namely, that one must have other populations to ‘outbreed’ with in order add genetic variation to the captive population. But what happens if we’re too late? What if there are no other populations to supplement with, or those other populations are also too genetically depauperate to use for genetic rescue?
Believe it or not, sometimes it’s not too late to save species, even after they have gone extinct. Which brings us from this (lengthy) introduction to this week’s topic: de-extinction. Yes, we’re literally (okay, maybe not) going to raise the dead.
Backbreeding: resurrection by hybridisation
You might wonder how (or even if!) this is possible. And to be frank, it’s extraordinarily difficult. However, it has to a degree been done before, in very specific circumstances. One scenario is based on breeding out a species back into existence: sometimes we refer to this as ‘backbreeding’.
This practice really only applies in a few select scenarios. One requirement for backbreeding to be possible is that hybridisation across species has to have occurred in the past, and generally to a substantial scale. This is important as it allows the genetic variation which defines one of those species to live on within the genome of its sister species even when the original ‘host’ species goes extinct. That might make absolutely zero sense as it stands, so let’s dive into this with a case study.
One of these species, Chelonoidis elephantopus, also known as the Floreana tortoise after their home island, went extinct over 150years ago, likely due to hunting and trade. However, before they all died, some individuals were transported to another island (ironically, likely by mariners) and did the dirty with another species of tortoise: C. becki. Because of this, some of the genetic material of the extinct Floreana tortoiseintrogressed into the genome of the still-living C. becki. In an effort to restore an iconic species, scientists from a number of institutions attempted to do what sounds like science-fiction: breed the extinct tortoise back to life.
When you saw the title for this post, you were probably expecting some Jurassic Parklevel ‘dinosaurs walking on Earth again’ information. I know I did when I first heard the term de-extinction. Unfortunately, contemporary de-extinction practices are not that far advanced just yet, although there have been some solid attempts. Experiments conducted using the genomic DNA from the nucleus of a dead animal, and cloning it within the egg of another living member of that species has effectively cloned an animal back from the dead. This method, however, is currently limited to animals that have died recently, as the DNA degrades beyond use over time.
One might expect that as genomic technologies improve, particularly methods facilitated by the genome-editing allowed from CRISPR/Cas-9 development, that we might one day be able to truly resurrect an extinct species. But this leads to very strongly debated topics of ethics and morality of de-extinction. If we can bring a species back from the dead, should we? What are the unexpected impacts of its revival? How will we prevent history from repeating itself, and the species simply going back extinct? In a rapidly changing world, how can we account for the differences in environment between when the species was alive and now?
There is no clear, simple answer to many of these questions. We are only scratching the surface of the possibility of de-extinction, and I expect that this debate will only accelerate with the research. One thing remains eternally true, though: it is still the distinct responsibility of humanity to prevent more extinctions in the future. Handling the growing climate change problem and the collapse of ecosystems remains a top priority for conservation science, and without a solution there will be no stable planet on which to de-extinct species.
One particular distinction we need to make early here is the difference between allele frequency and allele identity. In these analyses, often we are working with the same alleles (i.e. particular variants) across our populations, it’s just that each of these populations may possess these particular alleles in different frequencies. For example, one population may have an allele (let’s call it Allele A) very rarely – maybe only 10% of individuals in that population possess it – but in another population it’s very common and perhaps 80% of individuals have it. This is a different level of differentiation than comparing how different alleles mutate (as in the coalescent) or how these mutations accumulate over time (like in many phylogenetic-based analyses).
Fixed differences are sometimes used as a type of diagnostic trait for species. This means that each ‘species’ has genetic variants that are not shared at all with its closest relative species, and that these variants are so strongly under selection that there is no diversity at those loci. Often, fixed differences are considered a level above populations that differ by allelic frequency only as these alleles are considered ‘diagnostic’ for each species.
To distinguish between the two, we often use the overall frequency of alleles in a population as a basis for determining how likely two individuals share an allele by random chance. If alleles which are relatively rare in the overall population are shared by two individuals, we expect that this similarity is due to family structure rather than population history. By factoring this into our relatedness estimates we can get a more accurate overview of how likely two individuals are to be related using genetic information.
The wild world of allele frequency
Despite appearances, this is just a brief foray into the many applications of allele frequency data in evolution, ecology and conservation studies. There are a plethora of different programs and methods that can utilise this information to address a variety of scientific questions and refine our investigations.
Like many people, from a young age I was obsessed and interested in works of fantasy and science fiction. To feel transported to magical worlds of various imaginative creatures and diverse places. The luxury of being able to separate from the mundanity of reality is one many children (or nostalgic adults) will be able to relate to upon reflection. Worlds that appear far more creative and engaging than our own are intrinsically enticing to the human psyche and the escapism it allows is no doubt an integral part of growing up for many people (especially those who have also dealt or avoided dealing with mental health issues).
The intricate connection to the (super)natural world drove me to fall in love with the natural world. Although there might seem to be an intrinsic contrast between the two – the absence or presence of reality – the truth is that the world is a wondrous place if you observe it through an appropriate lens. Dragons are real, forms of life are astronomically varied and imaginative, and there we are surrounded by the unknown and potentially mythical. To see the awe and mystification on a child’s face when they see a strange or unique animal for the very first time bears remarkable parallels to the expression when we stare into the fantasy of Avatar or The Lord of the Rings.
It might seem common for ‘nerds’ (at least under the traditional definition of being obsessed with particular aspects of pop culture) to later become scientists of some form or another. And I think this is a true reflection: particularly, I think the innate personality traits that cause one to look at the world of fantasy with wonder and amazement also commonly elicits a similar response in terms of the natural world. It is hard to see an example where the CGI’d majesty of contemporary fantasy and sci-fi could outcompete the intrigue generated by real, wondrous plants and animals.
Seeing the divine in the mundane
Although we often require a more tangible, objective justification for research, the connection of people to the diversity of life (whether said diversity is fictitious or not) should be a significant driving factor in the perceived importance of conservation management. However, we are often degraded to somewhat trivial discussions: why should we care about (x) species? What do they do for us? Why are they important?
If we approach the real world and the organisms that inhabit it with truly the same wonder as we approach the fantastical, would we be more successful in preserving biodiversity? Could we reverse our horrific trend of letting species go extinct? Every species on Earth represents something unique: a new perspective, an evolutionary innovation, a lens through which to see the world and its history. Even the most ‘mundane’ of species represent something critical to functionality of ecosystems, and their lack of emphasis undermines their importance.
The biota of Earth are no different to the magical fabled beasts of science fiction and fantasy, and we’re watching it all burn away right in front of our eyes.
The first major component that is needed for SDM is the occurrence data. Some methods will work with presence-only data: that is, a map of GPS coordinates which describes where that species has been found. Others work with presence-absence data, which may require including sites of known non-occurrence. This is an important aspect as the non-occurring sites defines the environment beyond the tolerance threshold of the species: however, it’s very likely that we haven’t sampled every location where they occur, and there will be some GPS co-ordinates that appear to be absent of our species where they actually occur. There are some different analytical techniques which can account for uneven sampling across the real distribution of the species, but they can get very technical.
Our SDM analysis of choice (e.g. MaxEnt) will then use various algorithms to build a model which best correlates where the species occurs with the environmental variables at those sites. The model tries to create a set of environmental conditions that best encapsulate the occurrence sites whilst excluding the non-occurrence sites from the prediction. From the final model, we can evaluate how strong the effect of each of our variables is on the distribution of the species, and also how well our overall model predicts the locality data.
Species distribution modelling continues to be a useful tool for conservation and evolution studies, and improvements in analytical algorithms, available environmental data and increased sampling of species will similarly improve SDM. Particularly, improvements in environmental projections from both the distant past and future will improve our ability to understand and predict how species will change, and have changed, with climatic changes