Hoarding Genomes (DNA, tissue, organisms)
Before disasters people will often scour stores to hoard food and other essentials. We are now faced with changes in our global climate that are as bad, or worse, as our earlier worst case scenarios and a species die off that is unprecedented (Nature article, subscription required):
…biodiversity loss is accelerating globally. Some 12% of all bird species, 23% of mammals, 25% of conifers, 32% of amphibians and 52% of cycads are threatened with extinction1, and climate change alone might commit an additional 15 to 37% of extant species to premature extinction within the next 50 years.
So, we have begun to hoard.
Instead of food, we are hoarding tissue, genomes and organisms. In an feature article published in PLoS Biology yesterday, science journalist Virginia Gewin reports on one such recent effort (hat tip to Corturnix).
The Amphibian Ark,:
a plan to create a collective of hundreds of rescue facilities hosted primarily at zoos and aquariums around the world, will house and captively breed roughly 500 amphibian species deemed most at risk of extinction…
Already well underway, the AA is an attempt to save some species from complete die off, endangered from habitat loss, a devastating fungus and climate change. Almost a third of amphibian species are endangered.
It’s not the first of this type of effort. Of course zoos have been doing similar captive breeding programs to save and reintroduce endangered species, a notable example being the California Condor project.
But the scale and urgency of these new projects such as the Amphibian Ark is new.
The Frozen Ark. A project to freeze and save tissue samples for DNA and genomic ‘hoarding’ of endangered species is just getting off the ground. (future cloning projects?)
The Millennium Seed Bank Project. A project that will have ‘banked’ 10% of the world’s known wild plant seeds, including the world’s rarest, most endangered plants.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault. An underground, under permafrost, vault for the storage of the world’s crop seed diversity.
There is a question of the value of such genome hoarding, and that is basically what we are doing, hoarding the genomes (whether through tissues, seeds, entire organisms) of endangered species. If these organisms are going extinct because of either irreversible climate change or massive habitat destruction (or both), than the habitats and niches from which they came might never be restored. Also, as this recent paper(1) suggests, for every species that goes extinct, there are many other species that possibly go extinct because of that affliated species’ extinction. For example, their research indicates that the extinction of the 6,279 plants listed as threatened or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature would also cause the extinction of 4,672 species of beetles and 136 species of butterfly. So, for every 3 endangered plants’ seed we saved, there would be on average 1 species of insect, at least, that also went extinct that we were not able to save. With the loss of habitat and affiliated species, saving species for future return to the wild could be a Sisyphean task.
That said, there are several reasons that these genome hoarding projects are useful. First, for knowledge. Every genome lost (in the form of tissue, sequence or the entire organism) is some unique bit of knowledge we lose. Knowledge that could help us in ways we don’t even know. Additionally, even if saving 1,000 species’ genomes/seeds/representatives only ends up allowing us to save a few of those species for return to the wild (condors for example), maybe the task is worth it.
With the eminent loss of 1/3 of the world’s known amphbians, perhaps the Amphbian Ark will at least help stave off a greater loss?
1. . Clive Hambler, Martin R. Speight, Jeremy A. Thomas, and Ralph T. Clarke Science 10 September 2004: 1563-1565.
2. Image from PLoS Biology article