Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tweaking Genes to Save Species

There was an article published earlier this month in The New York Times entitled Tweaking Genes to Save Species. This article explains how bio-technologists have engineered mosquitoes with a lethal gene in order to be released in areas where mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus are prevalent.  Another group has discovered a way to engineer mosquitoes that spread sterility in the mosquito population;
this technique is called gene drive.  If regulators approve these techniques it may serve other purposes besides being used as weapon against the spread of mosquito-carrying illnesses.

These remarkable techniques could be used to protect the earth's biodiversity. This type of meddling makes many conservation biologists nervous because of the risk and unpredictability. However, we may have to accept the risks associated with artificial manipulation of a natural population to save species in a world where species are going extinct daily.  An example of how this technique can help preserve biodiversity is by protecting at-risk species. For example white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, is destroying bat colonies throughout North America.  Through gene-editing technology a less lethal form of the fungus administered to the bats at risk which may enable them to develop a resistance.

These advanced genomic techniques have the potential to restore lost genetic diversity.  Ryan Phelan, an executive director of Revive and Restore says,"We're in a unique period where we've got the technology potentially in place to start changing the course for a lot of these species before they go extinct." However appealing these techniques may seem I think we should exercise extreme caution because it is arrogant of us to think we can  plan what will happen. There have been many cases
 how human environmental meddling has had devastating consequences.  A famous example of this is how Australians brought back poisonous cane toads from South America in order to control the
 grey-backed cane beetle.  These toads have been extremely destructive ever since.  Ecosystems are highly complex and I think it is impossible to predict how genetically engineering nature will unfold.

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