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Can Genetic Modification Save Endangered Species?

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Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are hotly debated in the world of agriculture and continue to enrage many conscious consumers (and for good reason). But what if genetic modification becomes the only way to save endangered species from extinction?

In a new commentary published in the science journal, Nature, a group of scientists opened the floor for debate on this controversial topic. They proposed three possible ways genetic modification, which they call “facilitated adaptation,” might be able to save endangered species. These include:

  • Crossing animals and plants with individuals of the same species but from better-adapted populations to introduce adapted alleles into threatened populations.
  • Directly transferring populations with the adapted genomes into threatened populations of the same species.
  • Incorporating genes from well-adapted species into the genomes of endangered species (a cross-species approach).

These choices may seem unfavorable and could even cause other problems, the commentary’s writers admit.

“The potential risks of [facilitated adaptation] … include the introduction of wildlife diseases, the dilution of locally adaptive alleles and the disruption of co-adapted gene complexes that impart advantages crucial in the threatened population’s local habitat,” said Michael Thomas and the rest of the writing team.

But before we delve more into the problems of this approach, we should first evaluate what the underlying issue is — that many animals and plants are in grave danger, and increasingly so.

According to the Nature commentary, it is predicted that between 15 to 40 percent of all living species will effectively be extinct by 2050 because of climate change, habitat loss, and other effects of human activity. Around 20,118 animal and plant species are listed as endangered today.

Furthermore, some of the commonly proposed solutions to deal with this disturbing issue may not actually be viable in the long-run. These include: moving whole populations to more hospitable habitats, reinstating keystone species (those that play an important role in ecosystem structure like apex or top-level predators) into places they have been absent from, and even bringing extinct species back to life.

The Nature commentary writers argue that facilitated adaptation is far less invasive, not nearly as logistically challenging than moving entire populations, and might be potentially less burdened with ecological and socioeconomic complications.

But of course, there are other concerns with facilitated adaptation aside from what was mentioned earlier. A key concern the writers have is that by using genetic engineering to save endangered species, the world as a whole may feel less encouraged to take action on climate change and habitat destruction—the real roots of the problem.

Moreover, before facilitated adaption is pursued, it must achieve acceptance among a wide range of scientific fields in order to be executed properly, which may be unlikely, at least for a while.

There is no need to jump the gun and become alarmist about this topic as the facilitated adaptation approach is currently still in its infancy and more research needs to be conducted.

Still, if we continue on with our same actions that are accelerating both climate change and habitat destruction at the same rate, then we will ultimately fail to halt the loss of essential species, and other major disasters. And so the question remains, will genetic modification be the only way to save our precious endangered species?

Tell us what you think about this topic with a comment below!

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

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