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NMSU professor, colleagues suggest 'gene tweaking for conservation' in Nature article

Gary Roemer, New Mexico State University associate professor, and a group of colleagues are suggesting to facilitate adaptation by gene tweaking, as a solution to species extinction in a news article published Sept. 26 in Nature, an international weekly science journal.

Wildlife biologist Gary Roemer is working with colleagues to try saving species from extinction. The group is researching facilitated adaptation, or "gene tweaking," as a solution to waning biodiversity caused by climate change. Roemer is an associate professor in NMSU's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. (Courtesy photo)

Michael A. Thomas, a professor of biology at Idaho State University authored the article, "Gene tweaking for conservation," which includes contributions from Roemer, a professor of NMSU's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation.

"I organized a workshop that brought together a diverse group of scientists to assist in developing strategies geared toward climate change adaptation," Roemer said. "The biodiversity of western North America is threatened by global warming, which has already altered species distributions, changed phenology and caused the extirpation of populations. The loss of biodiversity has the potential to contribute to a decline in ecosystem services.

"We were having a discussion about assisted colonization, an approach that focuses on moving individuals or populations in peril to new locations with a suitable climate, and Mike said, 'Why don't we just move the genes?' That started this whole discussion about why we're not using genetic engineering to potentially solve conservation issues. It's something that needs to be debated. With technology moving the way it is, it's a viable alternative. People need to be thinking about it."

In the Nature piece, researchers outline three options of "gene tweaking;" hybridization, the transfer of alleles to individuals of a threatened population, and the transfer of genes from a different species to individuals of a threatened population. As Thomas notes in the story, "each approach carries its own set of challenges, complications and risks. When you start changing the genetic architecture of an organism, there are potentially unforeseen consequences."

Risks associated with the three options include the introduction of unscreened wildlife disease and the disruption of co-adapted gene complexes, which could lead to unmanageable consequences, as described in the article.

Roemer said that researchers have already identified heat tolerant alleles in a rainbow trout. These alleles could be inserted into the embryos of fish living in areas where water temperature is rising due to climate change.

Vaccines for immunization are one example of the application of medical advances for for humans and animals, he explained.

"We've learned that if we inject a protein or a killed virus into the human body, we can spur the immune process so that if the human gets exposed to the actual agent it'll amount an immediate response that prevents you from getting sick. We do that with animals all the time - domestic and wild animals," he said.

"I see this as an extension of that. Now maybe we can find a gene that can help, insert the gene and endow animals with a trait that helps them survive in a changing environment. Why is facilitated adaptation such a leap? Why wouldn't we want to save animals from extinction?"

The discussion toward gene tweaking was spurred by a National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop organized by Roemer and attended by researchers from across the country. "Ecological and genomic exploration of environmental change: assessing a century of climate change adaptation" examined declining biodiversity as one of the dangerous effects of climate change.

Collaborators included Josh Donlan, Brett Dickson, Marjorie Matocq and Jason Malaney, among others.

"The loss of biodiversity has the potential to contribute to a decline in ecosystem services," Roemer outlined in a report about the workshop. "For example, it has been proposed that higher biodiversity lessens the likelihood that zoonoses will cross species boundaries and result in novel human disease. Understanding the patterns and mechanisms involved that have and will alter biodiversity is thus paramount to developing strategies for mitigating current and future losses and the attendant ecological and socioeconomic costs."

Roemer emphasized that for now, he and his colleagues are merely searching for a solution to combat the extinction of biodiversity. More research must be conducted before they can begin experimenting with wildlife.

"Before genetic engineering can be seriously entertained as a tool for preserving biodiversity ... conservationists need to agree ... where such strategies are likely to fail or introduce more serious problems," Thomas stated in the Nature story. "For some species, facilitated adaptation could turn out to be the only viable remedy."

"We're discussing how we might develop a project along these lines," Roemer added. "We can first start with experimental systems and see what happens. If we find ways of applying these new gene technologies to conserving biodiversity, then we could take the next step. I don't think it should take the place of other more traditional approaches for conserving species, such as protecting habitat, but I think it could add to the tools that are currently available."

Roemer earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, his master's at Humboldt State University and his doctoral degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"I always wanted to study animals, ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper," he said of his decision to become a conservation biologist.

To read the Nature article, visit http://www.nature.com/news/ecology-gene-tweaking-for-conservation-1.13790.