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Spotlight on Science Writers: Beth Shapiro

A select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Beth Shapiro on How to Clone a Mammoth:

In the time since How to Clone a Mammoth was published, I can report with confidence  that a total of zero mammoths have been cloned. However, the technology that would be necessary to bring extinct species (or, more accurately, extinct traits) back to life continues to develop. To me, the most exciting progress has come from the growing community of scientists and other stakeholders who are interested in using genetic engineering approaches as a tool for conservation: a developing field of research known as genetic rescue.

Genetic rescue can mean several things. First, genetic rescue can be a new approach to help to save endangered species from extinction. Some species, such as the black-footed ferret, are under threat from extinction because their populations recently went through a population bottleneck, or a period of time when the population was very small. Population bottlenecks can be associated with dramatic losses in genetic diversity, which can be bad for the species. Black-footed ferrets that survived their population bottleneck are highly susceptible to disease, which may be due in part to the loss of genetic diversity that occurred during the bottleneck. Their susceptibility to disease hinders their conservation, as captive-bred individuals often die soon after release into their natural habitat. However, some natural history museums and the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo have older black-footed ferrets in their collections—black-footed ferrets that lived prior to their bottleneck. Because these animals lived prior to the bottleneck, their genomes will represent the diversity that used to be present in the population. Using genome-engineering technologies, scientists might be able to edit the genomes of living black-footed ferrets and introduce some of this extinct diversity, which may improve chances that the surviving population does not go extinct.

Genetic rescue can also refer to preserving an entire ecosystem. For example, although the idea is controversial, some scientists are hoping to use genome-editing technologies to help control the spread of the Zika virus. The goal would be to modify the genomes of male mosquitoes so that their offspring do not live long enough to reproduce. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration reviewed an application to conduct field trials of these genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida. Another approach might be to modify mosquitos so that they are infertile, and to do so in a way that causes the genome to actually edit itself. While gene drives are a potentially powerful approach to control diseases, some scientists fear that gene drives could have long-term impacts on species and ecosystems, and that the risks of using this technology are not yet well enough understood. In December 2016, however, a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity rejected calls for a global stop to research on gene drives, citing the great potential of these technologies.

Genetic rescue is not the same thing as de-extinction, but the motivation is the same: to restore interactions between species, or between species and their environment, so as to promote a healthy and diverse ecosystem. I’m thrilled that biotechnological solutions to this end are continuing to develop, and that many people seem willing to accept at least some risk and allow their use. I’m looking forward to big developments in 2017 (but these will not include the birth of a mammoth—sorry!).

Beth Shapiro is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the genetics of ice age animals and plants. A pioneer in the young field called “ancient DNA,” Beth travels extensively in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Siberia, and Canada collecting bones and other remains of long-dead creatures including mammoths, giant bears, and extinct camels and horses. Using DNA sequences extracted from these remains, she hopes to better understand how the distribution and abundance of species changed in response to major climate changes in the past, and why some species go extinct while others persist.

Beth is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and director of evolutionary genomics at the UCSC Genomics Institute. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Nature and Science, and she was a 2009 recipient of the MacArthur Award. She lives in Santa Cruz.

Her book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, was the winner of the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Young Adult Science Book category.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Kris Krüg.




This post originally appeared on Science NetLinks.