To exterminate, or not to: Scientists debate tweaking wild genomes

French Press Agency,  Daily Sabah,  2021.

Everyone remembers Jeff Goldblum’s famous speech in 1993 classic Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Well, these scientists are debating whether one should. In the movie, reconstructing and tweaking genetic material had made it possible to bring dinosaurs back to life. Today, a technology that manipulates animal genomes, called gene drive, has become a reality. The goal, however, is not to revive long-gone species, but to eliminate invasive ones. Steven Spielberg’s film was set on an imaginary island off the coast of Costa Rica, and it is also on an island that the first open-air experiments in programmed extinction could take place, according to experts gathered at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Congress in Marseille. It could happen within a decade, they told Agence France-Presse (AFP). That’s because fragile island ecosystems are in crisis. Dozens of vertebrate species have vanished in the last century, and dozens more are on a glide path to extinction. The culprits are non-native rats, snakes and mosquitoes – all introduced by humans, for the most part by accident – that eat bird eggs, infect birds with disease, or outcompete indigenous amphibians and mammals. For more than 20 years, Island Conservation has been working to eradicate rodents and other invasive alien species, which are a major threat to biodiversity globally, the organization’s Royden Saah told AFP. The conservation NGO has been successful on two Galapagos islands – Seymour North and Mosquera – using traps and poison-delivering drones. But species eradication using these tools is costly and has no guarantee of success. Rat poison is effective, but poses risks to other species.

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