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.
Managing and conserving threatened and endangered species in the wild is a difficult process. There are a large number of possible threats, outcomes, and it’s often not clear which of these (or how many of these) are at play at any one given time. Thankfully, there are also a large number of possible conservation tools that we might be able to use to protect, bolster and restore species at risk.
This can lead to a particular paradigm of conservation management: keeping everything separate and pure is ‘best practice’. The logic is that, as these different groups have evolved slightly differently from one another (although there is often a lot of grey area about ‘differently enough’), mixing these groups together is a bad idea. Particularly, this is relevant when we consider translocations (“it’s never acceptable to move an organism from one ESU into another”) and captive breeding programs (“it’s never acceptable to breed two organisms together from different ESUs”). So, why not? Why does it matter if they’re a little different?
Well, the classic reasoning is based on a concept called ‘outbreeding depression’. We’ve mentioned outbreeding depression before, and it is a key concept kept in mind when developing conservation programs. The simplest explanation for outbreeding depression is that evolution, through the strict process of natural selection, has pushed particularly populations to evolve certain genetic variants for a certain selective pressure. These can vary across populations, and it may mean that populations are locally adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions, with the specific set of genetic variants that best allow them to do this.
However, when you mix in the genetic variants that have evolved in a different population, by introducing a foreign individual and allowing them to breed, you essentially ‘tarnish’ the ‘pure’ gene pool of that population with what could be very bad (maladaptive) genes. The hybrid offspring of ‘native’ and this foreign individual will be less adaptive than their ‘pure native’ counterparts, and the overall adaptiveness of the population will decrease as those new variants spread (depending on the number introduced, and how negative those variants are).
You might be familiar with inbreeding depression, which is based on the loss of genetic diversity from having too similar individuals breeding together to produce very genetically ‘weak’ offspring through inbreeding. Outbreeding depression could be thought of as the opposite extreme; breeding too different individuals introduced too many ‘bad’ alleles into the population, diluting the ‘good’ alleles.
It might sound awfully purist to only preserve the local genetic diversity, and to assume that any new variants could be bad and tarnish the gene pool. And, surprisingly enough, this is an area of great debate within conservation genetics.
So, what’s the balance between the two? Is introducing new genetic variation a bad idea, and going to lead to outbreeding depression; or a good idea, and lead to genetic rescue? Of course, many of the details surrounding the translocation of new genetic material is important: how different are the populations? How different are the environments (i.e. natural selection) between them? How well will the target population take up new individuals and genes?
Overall, however, the more recent and well-supported conclusion is that fears regarding outbreeding depression are often strongly exaggerated. Bad alleles that have been introduced into a population can be rapidlypurged by natural selection, and the likelihood of a strongly maladaptive allele spreading throughout the population is unlikely. Secondly, given the lack of genetic diversity in the target population, most that need the genetic rescue are so badly maladaptive as it is (due to genetic drift and lack of available adaptive alleles) that introducing new variants is unlikely to make the situation much worse.
That said, outbreeding depression is not an entirely trivial concept and there are always limitations in genetic rescue procedures. For example, it would be considered a bad idea to mix two different species together and make hybrids, since the difference between two species, compared to two populations, can be a lot stronger and not necessarily a very ‘natural’ process (whereas populations can mix and disjoin relatively regularly).
The reality of conservation management
Conservation science is, at its core, a crisis discipline. It exists solely as an emergency response to the rapid extinction of species and loss of biodiversity across the globe. The time spent trying to evaluate the risk of outbreeding depression – instead of immediately developing genetic rescue programs – can cause species to tick over to the afterlife before we get a clear answer. Although careful consideration and analysis is a requirement of any good conservation program, preventing action due to almost paranoid fear is not a luxury endangered species can afford.