Can Crowdsourced Science Help Save the Black-Footed Ferret?
Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo
Revive & Restore has attracted worldwide attention for its ambitious plans to use genetic engineering to bring back extinct species, including the passenger pigeon and — perhaps, someday — the Woolly Mammoth.
But Executive Director Ryan Phelan provided a reminder on Tuesday that the San Francisco research organization is working to preserve endangered animals as well.
Onstage at the Techonomy Bio conference at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, Phelan said the group wants to help the black-footed ferret through a crowdsourced project that will kick off next month.
In a follow-up interview, she said they believe it’s the first “citizen science” project designed to aid endangered animals.
The species was thought to be extinct until a colony of 18 was discovered in 1981 near Meeteetse, Wyo. Captive breeding, conservation and release programs have helped bolster the animal’s numbers during the last three decades, including efforts at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
But Phelan noted that possible signs of inbreeding have emerged, specifically fertility issues that could get progressively worse in subsequent generations.
Revive & Restore, co-founded by Phelan’s husband Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has been working with Cofactor Genomics to sequence the DNA of several living ferrets as well as older specimens from the “Frozen Zoo” in San Diego (which I wrote about earlier this year).
On July 15, they plan to launch a public website with clear descriptions of the challenges as well as the genomic datasets. They want to invite “citizen scientists” and professionals to help analyze the information and potentially pinpoint the genomic differences implicated in loss of fertility, low sperm count and other issues.
“The idea is ultimately to help find out what areas of the genome have been compromised over time through this population bottleneck,” she said.
What happens next, if anything, will be determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered animal programs.
They could use the information to selectively breed those animals most likely to produce healthy offspring, perhaps through artificial insemination.
“The idea would be to provide this knowledge to see if there’s anything that would help make more informed choices,” Phelan said.
But long-term, whether with this species or others, there’s also the possibility of using genetic engineering to help along struggling animal populations. Researchers could potentially reproduce the healthy strands of the genome using DNA synthesis technology, splice it into stem cells and inject into a living species’ eggs — the same basic technique Revive & Restore is exploring for de-extinction.
Genetic engineering and de-extinction are, of course, polarizing topics.
Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker writer and author of the “Sixth Extinction,” said of the latter subject: “I’m pretty down on the idea. I think it’s basically being done for people, not for other species or for the planet. It’s being done because we think it’s cool or it assuages our guilt.”
But the audience at the conference seemed nothing if not receptive, with one member, a science fiction writer, eagerly asking about the “ship date” for the passenger pigeon. The last one died in 1914.
Phelan said they hope to produce the first birds within the next five years — and that flocks could once again fill the sky by 2025.
“We don’t consider a one-off a success,” she said. “We consider the restoration of the species a success.”