Article / Biotech / Genetics / Indigenous Breeds / PA / USA

Of mice (pupfish) and men: Existential matters rising in genetic rescues of endangered species

Global Agenda Visit to ILRI: ILRI's biorepository

Bio-repository of livestock genetic material at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

WIRED Magazine recently published an interesting article, ‘Attack of the mutant pupfish’, on some existential matters rising in attempts to make genetic rescues of endangered species. The author explores an interesting case study of the conflicting stands/approaches of animal conservationists serving as animal (species) preservationists and focusing on genetic integrity versus those serving as genetic managers or engineers focusing on genetic restoration.

This topic is of interest to a group of scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) who are collecting, characterizing, storing and promoting wider use of livestock genetic resources that are indigenous in developing countries. We can’t ‘save’ everything, so figuring out what to save, and how, is crucial.

‘. . . [W]hen an endangered species starts to really nose-dive, nature sometimes doesn’t move fast enough. One possible solution is to engineer hybrids. . . . This worry has plagued conservation for decades: Is the idea of “pure” or “pristine” nature even a useful conceptual tool?

Conservationists face what is in some ways as existential a threat as the one confronting the pupfish. The more they learn about nature, the more they wonder which part they’re supposed to conserve. . . .

‘Last summer at the Aspen Environment Forum, E. O. Wilson—arguably the world’s best-known conservation biologist—said that for human beings to maintain a viable environment on Earth, we should set aside half the planet’s surface for wild nature. But Emma Marris, a science writer and author of Rambunctious Garden, about human intervention in nature . . . pushed back.

Everything is already touched by human hands, she said. We have to manage it.

‘Wilson was aghast. “Where do you plant the white flag you’re carrying?” he asked.

‘Marris turned to a quote from ecologist Joe Mascaro: “I never took up arms,” she said. In fact, Marris and her husband, philosopher Yasha Rohwer, have found that more than 100 scientific papers treat the preservation of genetic integrity as some kind of manifestly obvious duty. But, they wrote, it ain’t necessarily so. Martin’s alternative: “genetic restoration,” in which organisms are given a fighting chance with new DNA. “Integrity” is irrelevant.

The future, then, will involve more intensive management of ecosystems and their inhabitants. That includes meddling not just in biogeography—what lives where—but in genes. There’s a delicate balance between saving a species and saving a gene pool, and calibrating it may be one of the biggest challenges of 21st-century conservation. . . .

‘“You need to do genetic restoration just as much as you need to do habitat restoration,” Martin says [Andy Martin is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder ] . . . . “But . . . the feeling is that genetic restoration is admitting defeat.”. . .

‘”It’s no longer just a biological question,” Martin says. “It’s an ethical, philosophical question. Because the fish won’t care.”

Read the whole article at WIRED Magazine: Attack of the mutant pupfish, Dec 2012.

With thanks to Luigi Guarino, senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust and curator of Agricultural Biodiversity Scoop.It!, where we found this article.

For more about ILRI’s animal genetic resources work, go here.

Tadelle Dessie at the ILRI ICARDA goat genetics resources training course

ILRI scientist Tadelle Dessie (right) leads a training course on methods and approaches on phenotypic characterization of animal genetic resources (goats), held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 20-21 December 2012. The course was organized by ILRI and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) (photo credit: ILRI/Liya Dejene).

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