DNA editing could transform ecology and conservation

Recent advances allow for the editing of any part of the DNA of individuals (their genome), offering a chance for ecologists and conservationists to radically transform individuals and ecosystems, as outlined in a new review. The new genome-editing tools are being driven by technology called CRISPR that allows for the precise editing of DNA letters coding for key genes within an organism. Among the many applications of CRISPR are the creation of gene drives that result in the rapid spread of either beneficial genes (to rebuild populations) or deleterious genes (to halt the spread of invasive species) throughout populations. Other applications include rapid sequencing of genomes, the removal of unwanted DNA, high-sensitivity detection of pathogens, the alteration of an organism’s adaptive capabilities, and the correction of disease using gene therapy. CRISPR can even be used to insert a genetic barcode into the genome of individuals to allow for different populations to be tracked as they mingle within broader aggregations. While there is still understandable reluctance to change the DNA of individuals in their natural habitat for ethical reasons, genome-editing will soon become an integral part of biology that needs to be tailored to solve conservation problems around the world. The review appears in the journal Conservation Biology, and is authored by Michael Phelps of the Department of Pathology at the University of Washington, and SAFS professors Lisa Seeb and Jim Seeb.

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