Here at Wild Animal News we have recently been reporting quite a bit on genetic science as it can be applied to wild animals. A few months ago we reported on a breakthrough in the war against ticks. Researchers have for the first time found a way to attack ticks by genetic modification. Previously, ticks were too resistant for the kind of manipulation that leads to control. The kind of manipulation that led to the virtual eradication of screwworm flies. That was relatively crude as it simply involved releasing billions of sterile male flies into affected areas. The modification of ticks was more complicated but can lead to similar results.
More recently we wrote about efforts by scientists to “de-extinct” the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacine) That Marsupial was the apex predator of Australia but went extinct in 1937. Scientists are now working to use DNA from thylacine specimens and its nearest living relative to try and revive a very near hybrid. That involves sequencing the DNA from the extinct animal and the relative to create an embryo that is brought to term in the relative.
We have also written about invasive species. Species that are brought to one part of the world to another and wreak havoc on the new home. Burmese pythons in Florida and feral cats in Australia are two examples. Scientists are trying to manipulate the DNA of these animals to bring them under control. One possibility is manipulating pythons so that the eggs are all male.
Today comes news that scientists in China say they have made a gigantic breakthrough in genetic studies. The kind of breakthrough that changes the world forever, for better or worse. The claimed breakthrough was reported in the journal Science. It is also reported on here.
In simple terms they say they have taken a laboratory mouse and re-programmed its entire genetic structure gene by gene. This is considered a huge break through with huge implications in many areas. But it will likely not go down without serious controversy,
Quoting the abstract:
“Chromosome engineering has been attempted successfully in yeast but remains challenging in higher eukaryotes, including mammals. Here, we report programmed chromosome ligation in mice that resulted in the creation of new karyotypes in the lab. Using haploid embryonic stem cells and gene editing, we fused the two largest mouse chromosomes, chromosomes 1 and 2, and two medium-size chromosomes, chromosomes 4 and 5. Chromatin conformation and stem cell differentiation were minimally affected. However, karyotypes carrying fused chromosomes 1 and 2 resulted in arrested mitosis, polyploidization, and embryonic lethality, whereas a smaller fused chromosome composed of chromosomes 4 and 5 was able to be passed on to homozygous offspring. Our results suggest the feasibility of chromosome-level engineering in mammals.”
The scientists used CRISPR which stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats.” Huh?
Science Explores explained it this way.:
“CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Those repeats are found in bacteria’s DNA. They are actually copies of small pieces of viruses. Bacteria use them like collections of mug shots to identify bad viruses. Cas9 is an enzyme that can cut apart DNA. Bacteria fight off viruses by sending the Cas9 enzyme to chop up viruses that have a mug shot in the collection. Scientists recently figured out how bacteria do this. Now, in the lab, researchers use a similar approach to turn the microbe’s virus-fighting system into the hottest new lab tool.
This CRISPR/Cas9 tool was first described in 2012 and 2013. Science labs around the world soon started using it to alter an organism’s genome — the entire set of its DNA instructions.”
What the future holds is of course unknown, but the tool has been used to modify food. Proponents say that it can soon lead to hypoallergenic pets, prevention of disease and other miracles.
But at what cost?
Even this brief discussion should show that the new technology raises many ethical and legal, moral and political issues that will have to be solved. Many probably haven’t even been thought of.
How can this work to prevent extinction? One possibility is provided by Tasmanian Devils. The creatures are afflicted by a debilitating disease that might extinct them. More than 80 percent of devils that come down with the facial tumors die. We reported on a ray of hope in their plight. If this new technology based on genetic re modeling performs as promised it is possible devils can be genetically manipulated to be disease resistant.