Creating a gene bank for endangered plants and animals

Written by group 3: Rashi Gupta, François Gateau, Xavier Dersey, Aditya Srivastava, Vishrut Mittal, Somshubhra Nandi

Vision of the future to be built

Considering the impact of Global Warming and the rising global temperatures and the harm it is doing to the environment and ecosystem it is essential to curb this phenomenon. We have all seen reports stating how we have almost reached the tipping point in terms of climate change after which there will be no point of return. So, we need to take measures to avoid this possibility, however if it happens, we also need to be thinking of solutions to counter the problem. This is where innovation can only save us and hence it is a bit unpredictable. However, looking at the variance in objectives of some countries it is important to have some sort of backup plan like the famous saying — “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This is where our organization comes into the picture. Our objective is to have a gene bank of various plants and animal species that can be used in needs of emergency.

The impact of extinct species will lead to ecosystems getting destroyed eventually. Our aim is to preserve that. Considering how the Earth is so connected, the acceptance of all countries is important as disputing countries can continue undoing the good of the others. Countries refusing could be hit with sanctions like no foreign aid, no trade with other countries, etc to ensure the acceptance from all countries. After getting the acceptance from all countries, collecting genes of plants and animals where it is possible with a special focus on close to extinct species.

With the use of CRIPSR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and AI we can reverse engineer DNA to bring back extinct species like how Colossal is doing with the woolly mammoth. They have given a timeline of 10–15 years, and this is also gives us a good idea of how the environment is doing till then considering some countries like Germany are trying to use more renewable resources vs countries like India where coal is going to be the dominant form of energy for the next 50 years.

We expect all countries to fund us, funding depending on the GDP of the country to keep it fair. After receiving our initial funding and setting up a DNA bank, we can then go about trying to de-extinct species. The reason we want to be an organization is that our motive is to preserve the environment and the ecosystem that sustains it, and this helps in achieving that goal. We also want to minimize ethical risks and that’s why this cannot be shared and would require a certain level of knowledge and competence to be eligible to work in this organization.

We feel that this could be one of the many technologies that could help us in trying to cope with the new environment and ecosystem, thanks to the over-utilization of earth’s resources for the past 100 years. This alone might not be enough but is definitely a step in the right direction and we can hope that even smarter people can build something even better, using this as a building block.

The most salient aspect of this future

Gene cloning is the most crucial aspect of this future, without which there will be no gene banks. The concept is to make copies of DNA called sequencing and then replicating these fragments into full organisms. The most common technique used to do this is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) where you can isolate some cells and then amplify them according to the gene required. This is a salient feature to create a gene bank because in case of extinct or even endangered species, we can secure a few strands of DNA and store them in DNA hard drives to later replicate.

Our planet today is warming up faster than ever witnessed before in past 10,000 years. Resulting from increased human emissions of greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change threatens the survival of a multitude of plants and animal species.

One of the important aspects of the future we imagine is the continued state of the degradation of plant and animal ecosystems. A recent research studying over 538 plant and animal species over time, found that 44% of them had local extinctions at one or more sites. A key variable for species to go extinct was noted to be the increase in earth’s temperatures and inability of animals to migrate to places with better suited climate conditions. Earth’s temperature has been noted to rise by 0.14 F degrees per decade since 1880. The 2020 surface temperature of land and ocean, was noted to be 1.76F warmer than the twentieth century average of 57 degree F Based on such trends, it is estimated that by the end of this century global temperatures will be 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than what it was previously in 1900s. Given such a situation, the research estimated that 70% of the 538 species would not be able disperse quickly enough to colder — better suited climate conditions and thus face extinction. This presents a grim future for the flora and fauna and points towards the growing need of a technology that ensures the survival or the earth’s rich biodiversity.

Given the rise rise in Co2 concentrations in the air, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates Co2 levels to rise to 550ppm by 2050 from 400ppm currently. A UN report further claimed that 1M specie of plants and animals are at risk due to such high carbon levels.

Studying the following research conducted on impact of climate change and global warming and their impact on plants and animals, confirms the need of investment in the spread of technologies like CRISPR. While prevention and controlling carbon emitting actives is on side, preservation and investment in a gene editing technology like ours is key for the future in store, based on current trends. It is predicted that even if countries stick to the Paris Agreement (2015) and curb the growth of global warming — about 16% of the 537 species surveyed would still be extinct. This further reconfirms our hypothesis, that simply curbing carbon producing activities is not the answer to the extinction of plants and animals.

Undercurrent technologies as building blocks

CRISPR, our core technology is a molecular tool that can be used to make targeted and precise changes to the DNA of plant, animals and microbes. In the past a research team used CRISPR to edit a handful of genes of a wild tomato. Their core goal being to make it a domesticated tomato. They were successful in achieving a tomato with more and bigger fruit. We aim for such researches to be carried out by liaising with various think tanks, research institutes of universities and governments. This helps aid in proving the efficacy of gene editing through research based empirical evidence.

Further, it has been noted that gene editing via CRISPR can be expanded if there is enough research understanding the genes that are important for tolerance to warmer temperatures, water and varying soils and precipitation levels. Given rapid climate change and global warming, this would be key. Scientists explain that if a gene edit in corals results in them being able to tolerate warmer waters better, then their survival could be prolonged. Apart from having a gene pool, using background research in studying the varieties of plants and animals and their reaction to changes in climate is also important. This would form the core for our technology to spread.

To make this project successful, there are a lot of other technologies which we need. With biotechnology growing exponentially, techniques like assaying, DNA sequencing, diagnostics and biosynthesis have been developing fast. A few major tech developments include:

Single cell technology: as the name suggests, it’s basically, getting detailed information about a single cell and this is being used in drug development, research and gene cloning. This is extremely useful because it’s then used to replicate to multiple cells. This technology is extremely important for gene preservation for animals and humans alike because the single cell analysis can be manipulated, replicated and preserved easily.

Aptamer Biosensors: This technology is used to develop strands of DNA and RNA and to target specific molecules within. Currently being used in biosensors, detectors and in pregnancy tests, this can be made into a very efficient process for gene cloning.

Cell therapy: A current tech called cell therapy delivers, replaces and modifies specific cells in the genes. Currently being used in cancer treatments and to deliver beta-cells for diabetes patients, this too can help to modify gene molecules to preserve the species which is now extinct or even make it more adaptable.

Stem cell technology: The differentiating quality of stem cells is a big factor which will facilitate this process. It’s being used in all sorts of research and regenerative medicine. These cells are the ones which actually create the organism by multiplying and differentiating into almost any other cell.

CRISPR: This technology is the one that makes gene cloning possible. CRISPR is the tool using which we can cut and modify genes without using DNAs. Currently being used in treatments of sickle cell anemia and thalassemia, this has the potential of much more.

DNA hard drives: Like data storage in computers, this is storage for DNA of multiple kilobytes. There are multiple server farms which maintain this DNA storage and also to code DNA into a computer code & vice-versa like 5-byte Hello was coded into a DNA. This is the ultimate gene storing process which is crucial to our project.

DNA origami: This makes DNA & RNA self-assemble so that the genes can be stored and replicated. It’s being used in drug delivery and nanorobots currently.

AI in medicine: Finally, the biggest tech development was AI which actually makes it all possible. It can be used to not only modify but also create new tech for gene cloning.

Blockers & Incentives

By far, the biggest blocker to our operations, would be governments, organizations, and people in general not seeing the value in the project, which would eventually thus leading to a preemptive cessation.

Global temperature rising, glaciers melting all over, mass extinction of species on the rise, wildfires in Australia.. one would think that the issue of global warming has finally taken the centre stage, however that may prove to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

A YouGov poll showed that the number of respondents placing the environment among their top three issues of concern rose from 6% in mid-January to 23% in mid-February. By early April — though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just published two massive and horrifying reports — the proportion had fallen back to 11%. Sustaining interest in this great but slow-burning crisis is a challenge no one seems to have mastered. Only when the crisis causes or exacerbates an acute disaster — such as the floods — is there a flicker of anxiety, but that quickly dies away.

Making commitments in conferences is one thing, putting your money where your mouth is something completely different. Below we can see how some of the countries that make the highest promises perform the worst, such as Australia, Canada and US.

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

As you can see from the following graph, the people consulted in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts tend to be smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain feel the least consumer guilt; the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil the most.

Thus, it is clear than the environment and more specifically environmental issues are not being given the attention, commitment and action they should. Gene editing,

a. Is a sub field in the whole spectrum of environmental issues/improvements

b. Requires a lot of investment, financial backing etc

This could mean gene editing may not get the attention /backing it deserves and may also draw lots of skepticism as it common with new tech, especially with one as expensive as this. Just because we are able to clone a single wolly mammoth, doesn’t mean we should, and cloning one isn’t enough to de-extinct a species. We’ll need to do it on a large scale, and whether or not this will be sustainable is something that remains to be seen.

This might even attract negative attention, as it was the case with Dolly the cloned sheep. This negative attention could be in the form of governments, news organization or even from animal welfare groups such as PETA.

To turn these ‘blockers’ into collaborators we need to properly incentivize them and more importantly make them see things, ie see things from a long term, future-based aspect and not the present value, consequences. Some ways we can go about doing this are :

a. In philosophy, it is often said that people fear/are angry about that which they do not understand. Thus, as a first step, we must and need to educate the masses about gene cloning, the processes, how animals aren’t harmed in the process etc

b. Then, once the public has been educated, it is time to make them see the potential benefits, some of which are but not limited to :- treating severe diseases, re-building the environment etc, making disease treatments less costly etc.

c. Having a protocol in place to prevent misuse/unscrupulous intentions

First Baby Steps to Start Concrete Action Based on the Above

To our mind, the very first step is to triangulate our action area. In order to do so, we will begin working closely with climate researchers and scientists to identify both the most vulnerable species and the geographies in which climate change will bring the most severe alterations:

As mentioned previously, climate change will cause massive modifications but some species are more at risk than others. Hence, the first step is to identify those species which are “abnormally” at risk in the very near future. Our environment being composed of more than 7 million breeds, concentrating on a small pool of animals is substantial. Part of the task would be, for instance, given the climate forecasts in the 5 to 10 years, to point the species whom the genetic material seems weak and unable to deal with ecosystem’s alterations. In parallel, such investigations will serve as a basis to determine potential genetic resources and for further developing the breeding strategies. Secondly, climate change will not hit every geography with the same intensity. As so, zooming in on geographies in which environmental changes are the most significant ones is also a prerequisite. Once again, it implies to cooperate with climatologists to put the finger on the most urgent locations.

Then, once the operation area is clearly delineated, the next step would be to deal with the legal establishment. A DNA bank will collect, store as well as alter some genetic materials. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that those actions might be legally possible for each geography we plan to settle on.

The following phase will then deeply focus on the extraction and conservation. We must define the genetic material to be retrieved. Whether it might be semen, embryos, oocytes, cells or nuclei, each genetic information requires a specific technique to be collected. Also, given a particular type of sample, you need to adapt the way you preserve and conserve it to ensure not altering the structure and genetic data. For now, cryoconservation seems to be the more appropriate technique to extract the vastest amount of information and is likely to be the most useful technique to recreate extinct animal species.

Sources

  1. FAO Programmes for the Preservation of Animal Genetic ResourcesLink : https://www.fao.org/3/t0284e/T0284E03.htm
  2. European Commission, Project “Horizon 2020”, Saving animal DNA for future generations
  3. Genetically Engineered crops (2016), chapter 7: Future genetic technologies
  4. Laboratory Methods in Enzymology: DNA by Juliane C. Lessard, in Methods in Enzymology, 2013
  5. DNA cloning by Khan Academy: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/ap-biology/gene-expression-and-regulation/biotechnology/a/overview-dna-cloning
  6. https://ensia.com/features/crispr-biodiversity-coral-food-agriculture-invasive-species/
  7. https://escholarship.org/content/qt79k515j0/qt79k515j0.pdf?t=pqxck1
  8. https://wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/wildlife_practice/problems/climate_change/
  9. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/8/4211
  10. https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/02/14/climate-change-study-plant-animal-extinction/4760646002/
  11. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/21/weather/species-extinction-climate-trnd/index.html
  12. https://undark.org/2019/09/13/how-gene-editing-is-changing-the-world/
  13. https://phys.org/news/2015-12-embrace-gene-editing-human-embryos.html
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/may/09/why-we-couldnt-care-less-about-the-natural-world

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