WWF's Conservation Innovation Awards

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Long live the kakapo!

The kakapo population suffers from poor genetic-diversity, but using Crispr/Cas genome editing it is now possible to re-introduce 'dead DNA' from museum specimens of more genetically unique kakapo back into the current population to enhance their genetic diversity and chance at long-time survival. This strategy is already being used on the black-footed ferret population, highlighting its feasibility. 

What conservation problem are you trying to solve?

Genetic diversity is a key component for the long-term survival of a population. Many endangered species suffer from limited genetic-diversity due to small population numbers and consequent inbreeding, leading to further population decline due to reduced fertility, adaptability and disease resistance. The kakapo (strigops habroptilus) is one of New Zealand's iconic yet critically endangered avifaunal species currently suffering from low genetic diversity and inbreeding depression.

How are you going to solve this conservation problem?

Kakapo genomes are already being sequenced, but identifying the regions of DNA exhibiting reduced genetic diversity, as well as establishing and implementing Crispr/cas technology is still required. To do this, the alleles in the current population where homozygosity of detrimental recessive genes is increased (compared to the 'dead DNA') need to first be identified. The dominant alleles identified in the 'dead DNA' could then serve as the template to guide Crispr/cas editing, which is a specific and efficient technique used to edit DNA. 

What makes your idea new and unique?

While breeding programmes, habitat restoration and reducing threats from predators are absolutely critical in the fight to save endangered species, reducing inbreeding depression is also key to long-term survival. Crispr/cas genome editing is a new tool that allows us for the first time to re-introduce 'dead DNA' from more genetically diverse individuals, thereby improving the genetic-diversity of the current population and thus their chance at survival. While I am not the first person to propose using Crispr/cas in such a way, I am not aware of it being used as a conservation tool in New Zealand.

For an overview of some of Crispr/cas's applications see http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/08/dna-crispr-gene-editing-science-ethics/

Who will use your idea, and how will they benefit?

All endangered species suffering from inbreeding depression could benefit from this application of Crispr/cas technology. It could also be used to engineer genes of threatened plants/animals to make them more resilient to disease, for example. Incorporating Crispr/cas technology into New Zealand's arsenal of conservation tools therefore introduces many new possibilities that could change the landscape of conservation.

What tasks or activities do you need investment for? How would you spend a $25,000 grant?

Getting the conversation started! 

Are you a New Zealand citizen or resident?

YES

I have read and agree to the Crowdicity Terms of Use, the Conservation Innovation Awards 2016 Supplemental Terms and Conditions, and the Crowdicity Community Guidelines

YES

List five other ideas posted in the challenge that excite you. Why?

The first 2 ideas that really excited me are 'Celium- Nature's Internet' and 'DroneCounts', because I spent 2 weeks volunteering on Codfish Island with the Kakapo Recovery Programme and witnessed firsthand how much time the Kakapo Rangers' spent using telemetry to locate the birds. I think technologies that reduce the time required to locate animals with transmitters would have a widespread impact.

The third idea that excites me is 'Lizard Tales' because I agree that a lot of conservation efforts focus on NZ's avifaunal species and not on its lizards, and I think it's a great first step to monitor them and try and understand the influence of predator control.

'Bio-diversity statistics platform' is the 4th idea that excites me. A lot of the questions wildlife conservationists are trying to answer are complex and multifactorial, and having a more visual readout of how different factors interact would be hugely helpful. The idea of making it an interactive platform also strengthens its impact.

The fifth idea I like is 'Backyard Beehive' because it tackles a worldwide problem- the decline in honeybees- while also engaging and educating people, raising funds to support further research, and potentially creating opportunities for unemployed/disadvantaged people. It sounds like a win-win-win-win to me! 

 

How could you improve your idea?

My idea is very much that- an idea. But I believe it's a good idea and I'm excited about pushing it forward. To improve it, I need to flesh out the details, which means I need to form collaborations with people currently employing Crispr/cas technology in a similar way to help guide the process. Ideally, it could be turned into a PhD project (or projects) that would be directly supervised by a PI with Crispr/cas expertise, but done in collaboration with the Kakapo Recovery Programme and the Kakapo Genome Project. 

edited on Mar 2, 2017 by Maggie Evans

Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

You get my vote- have you read this? - http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/19/your-de-extinction-questions-answered/

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Dr. Maggie Evans 6 months ago

Thanks for the link :). I hadn't seen that exact article, but I've read several of the de-extinction articles that have been coming out recently. This was the one that inspired my kakapo proposal: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/de-extinction-in-action-scientists-consider-a-plan-to-reinject-long-gone-dna-into-the-black-footed-ferret-population/. The black-footed ferret population hit an all time low of 18 individuals (the kakapo hit a low of 51 I think...), and they're ultimately doing what I reckon needs to be done for the kakapo- using 'dead DNA' to introduce more genetic diversity into the current population.

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

I recall the work done by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Critically important work and I would like to see you in the finals, or for your work to be funded. I often look through the list of extinct NZ birds and wish science could bring them back.
I have been messaging friends to get on and vote for you.

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Dr. Maggie Evans 6 months ago

Thanks heaps Christopher!

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

Priceless

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Sam Rye 6 months ago

I don't fully understand the proposal, and it certainly sounds like there may be some ethics issues to work out, but in the spirit of the need for innovative responses to conservation challenges, you have my vote and I'd like to see more discussion about this. I'd love to understand especially how IP would be assigned?

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Dr. Maggie Evans 6 months ago

Thanks for the feedback! I *tried* improving my explanation of how it works, but it's a mighty challenge with the limited characters allowed! It's definitely at the idea stage, and a lot of things would need fleshing out before it gets rolled out!

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

I think the only ethics involved is saving these birds- every other argument can wait.

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Wild about NZ Wildlife 6 months ago

We are involved in the breeding of species like Giant Weta and interested for further progress. with so many species on the treatened list we need to explore all options available. Good luck

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Dr. Maggie Evans 6 months ago

Thats exactly my goal/hope- so many species need help and this seems like a viable option, so although it's controversial, we have more to lose by doing nothing.

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Ajohn 6 months ago

Editing genomes has potential both for positive conservation, enabling threatened species to expand their numbers and increase areas of habitat, and for restricting breeding success in pest species. These are very early days in a field which is likely to significantly expand.

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

Spot on

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

29 Votes Almost there....

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

30 Votes :-)

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Christopher Wingate 6 months ago

Here is why this work is so critically important- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acv.12177/abstract

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