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?
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.