Could Genetic Modification Save Species from Extinction?

By: Nadia Lovko, Sustainability Metrics & Reporting Intern

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been coming under fire lately with their use in crops.  93% of soybeans and 86% of corn produced in the U.S. are GMOs. Crops have been at the center of the GMO debate, but much more is being done with gene modification than just producing pest resistant corn.  Scientists have begun trying to use gene modification to bring species back from the edge of extinction. But how is this done? 

Image credit: Jay Kelly


Florida Panther
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Two methods are being looked at for helping with wildlife conservation.  The first method is facilitated adaptation.  The idea behind this is that the world is changing much faster than species can adapt, due to global climate change.  Even conservative estimates suggest that between 15-40% of species will be eliminated by 2050 as a result of human activities.  If we are to preserve these species, we may need to develop a more active role.  A form of facilitated adaptation has already been done with the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi).  Eight cats of the related subspecies, Puma concolor stanleyana from Texas were introduced to the population, effectively increasing genetic diversity and increasing the population by 100%.

Genetic modification could prove to be a more precise method of increasing diversity and helping populations.  Rather than trying to move individuals or populations, genes could be moved and inserted into the population.  If scientists could isolate the genes or alleles that produce a higher tolerance to heat or disease, for example, this could be inserted into the population to help them deal with changing conditions. The risks of this are similar to those of relocating entire populations: disease spread, dilution of adaptive alleles, and gene disruption.  The benefits would only be noticeable if enough individuals were altered to be “better adapted”.  This method is least risky if adaptive genes are taken from within the same species, but different subspecies or populations.  A more drastic, and potentially risky, option involves taking adaptive genes from unrelated species.  This has been done with crops, and could be done with animals as well.  The main concern is that it is much more difficult to predict how the gene insertion will affect the animal.  This could result in unimagined and unintended consequences.  Much more research will need to be done before this becomes a widespread practice. 

Chick with a rubber Duck
Photo source: Ann Kendall

The other method for helping wildlife conservation is actually a bit more difficult, but extremely fascinating. In this method, the organism is altered as an embryo to change its development.  This is a technique done in birds, with hopes that it could be used to help save endangered species or even bring back extinct species like the carrier pigeon.  It has been successfully completed in the lab, in which a duck was able to father a chicken.  It’s true. Germ cells from a chicken were inserted into the reproductive organs of a male duck embryo.  With these germ cells in place, the duck did not develop its own.  This means that as the duck grew and developed, it actually produced chicken sperm.  This method would need to be altered to produce the egg, but it is an incredible start.  This could mean hens could produce the eggs of endangered species, allowing assisted propagation of the species.  

Some people are hesitant about these ideas, since it may be compared to “playing God”.  Others believe it is our duty to try and save these species, since it is our fault they are at risk. While some of this seems a bit “Jurassic Park”, the reality is, this may be the only option if we want to keep these species around.  Still, creating these species hybrids and putting them into the environment could be risky if we do not know what niche is available for them to fill.

In conclusion, the science behind these techniques is amazing, but we may not be ready for it yet.  If we learned anything from “Jurassic Park”, it’s that just because we can doesn’t mean we should.  We must proceed with caution and be sure we have thought everything through before we do something irreversible.  




3 thoughts on “Could Genetic Modification Save Species from Extinction?

  1. In time, the earth will balance itself and humanity will ebb away to a more sustainable level, it seems like madness to then try to change the world around us even further

  2. EO Wilson discussed this possibility for biodiversity protection. His conclusion (which I ultimately agree with), is that there is ultimately no substitute for conserving biodiversity. It would likely be too expensive to rebuild biodiversity, and it is highly unlikely we could ever restore everything we had destroyed.

  3. The problem with using unproven “cutting edge” technologies is that we have no idea what their unintended consequences will be since we have no experience base from which to fully understand the complex interconnected systems they will affect. It would seem to be hubris to presuppose human omniscience and assume that our good intentions will have wonderful benefits and prevent disastrous outcomes. This has not proven to be the case, regarding global climate change, nuclear energy, financial complexity and proliferating crop mono culture practices, in my opinion.

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