The Technology Saving Endangered Species
According to Stanford Social Innovation Review, one quarter of all plant and animal species are threatened with extinction today. Technology-driven economic expansion has long been considered the culprit for there being 1,000,000+ endangered species. In fact, many ecologists controversially believe that the emergence of humans will be marked as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. While today’s extinction rate is nowhere near that of a mass extinction event (yet), it is 1,000x higher than natural background rates and continues to climb.
Most of the primary causes of today’s abnormal extinction rate have been driven by technological advancement. Technology has enabled efficient deforestation, intercontinental travel that brought with it invasive species and pathogens, mass hunting (overfishing for example), and the creation of non-biodegradable pollutants and industrially catalyzed greenhouse gas emissions. All of these issues pose a serious threat to species around the globe.
However, hope is not lost. In recognition of this biodiversity crisis, innovators have stepped in and leveraged technology to save species in a number of creative ways.
When collecting tissue samples from a large animal, such as a whale, it is often dangerous for conservationists and causes harm to the animal at the same time. However, these tissue samples are important for gaining critical insights into these organisms, tracking their health, understanding their biology, and opening the door for innovation to help these animals avoid extinction. So, a team of researchers at the ZSL Institute of Zoology came up with a creative, non-invasive (and somewhat funny) way to collect tissue samples from whales. Instead of collecting blood, these scientists collected tissue samples via blow-hole air, which is rich in snot. They did this by hovering remote-controlled helicopters with petri dishes strapped to the bottom (pictured below) over pods of whales. When the whales exhale through their blow-holes, their snot sticks to the petri dishes and these samples can provide incredibly valuable information without harming the whale.
Many animals are hunted and harvested for their unique biological outputs, but what if we could create these outputs in other ways? A channel of biotechnology called biosynthesis does just that. Biosynthesis is the synthetic creation of biological outputs. One famous example of biosynthesis is the creation of insulin by using bioengineered bacteria instead of domestic animals. This reduces the cost of creating insulin — providing an immense benefit to those who need it — while also increasing its availability. Biosynthesis has also been used to create synthetic alternatives to horseshoe crab blood, which has been predominantly used in pharmaceutical testing (pictured below). Biosynthesis techniques can also be used to combat the previously untreatable fungal diseases that are killing masses of bats, amphibians, coral reef systems, and many plants across the globe. Recently, synthetic meat has been successfully created in labs using animal DNA. This biotechnology may soon eliminate the need to kill animals for meat. Furthermore, plant-based protein products, while not biosynthetic, are saturating the market and to a degree, replacing meat in many consumers’ diets. Lastly, scientists are currently researching how biosynthesis could be used to create ivory, a resource typically obtained from elephant tusks. Should it be successfully created, this synthetic ivory could be used to outcompete poachers and thus protect elephants from being hunted to extinction.
Aside from poachers, the biggest threat to elephants’ survival is human-animal conflicts. Many elephants are killed by people when they pillage farms and/or wander into settlements and display aggressive behavior. To address this problem, smart collars with SIM cards have been developed. These collars are capable of sending text messages with the animal’s location both to track their movements for scientific research and to warn farmers and other civilians when elephants are approaching their area. This helps people distance themselves from elephants when they encroach on human settlements to prevent the life-or-death situations that result in both human and elephant fatalities.
An increasingly large threat to biodiversity is the frequent introduction of invasive species as a result of globalized human transportation. Up until recently, the only ways to correct the disruptive effects invasive species have on ecosystems were either to manually remove the invasive species (by hand or with toxins), which is a difficult and almost never comprehensive solution, or to introduce yet another potentially invasive species that consumes the first one, which often has similar externalities. A new biotechnology has been developed that can more effectively and humanely address the problem of invasive species: gene drives. Gene drives are gene editing tools that skew the chances of a species’ sexual reproduction producing 50% male and 50% female offspring. For example, scientists could alter the genes of several specimens of an invasive species population, release them back into the wild, and within a few generations, all of that population’s offspring are male and the population fails to reproduce. This tool’s potential for locally eliminating vectors of disease such as rats and mosquitos has been especially emphasized. However, the high generational inheritance of gene drives could make them incredibly harmful should they not be limited to a localized, specific population. Without these conditions, it could cause extinction of the “invasive” species everywhere, which could be catastrophic for their native ecosystems.
Currently, it is difficult for fishermen to discriminate their fishing efforts between marine animals they want to catch and those that they don’t want to catch. As a result, many endangered sharks are mistakenly caught and killed in the process. However, a new high-tech magnetic fish hook, called the SMART hook, has been developed to keep sharks away from fishing lines. These new hooks have a metal coating that produces a voltage when submerged in seawater. Because all sharks are highly sensitive to electric fields, the SMART hook is very successful in keeping sharks away from fishing lines intended for other species of fish.
Underlying many of the biotech innovations described in this article is the foundation laid by genome sequencing. Fortunately, the costs to sequencing a single genome have declined exponentially since the Human Genome Project’s completion for $100 million in 2001, even outpacing the cost reductions of computer chips described by Moore’s Law (as Figure 2 shows). Due to these monumental cost reductions, genome sequencing can now be used to identify genes that make species successful, or especially resilient to certain diseases. Tasmanian devils today are being ravaged by an aggressive form of cancer called devil facial tumor disease that is threatening to wipe out the already isolated species. Genome sequencing has been used to identify the genes that make some Tasmanian devils resistant to the disease. Scientists can subsequently edit other devils’ genes to cultivate a resistance to this insidious cancer.
Lastly, IBM has created an innovative solution that speaks to the innate challenges of conservationist work. It may be difficult to discern how many of an animal are left to begin with, especially if they are in fact endangered, but a deeper difficulty lies in discerning why a species is endangered and how conservation efforts should be targeted. IBM’s predictive analytics software collects and analyzes large amounts of complex information about wildlife for the purpose of extrapolating the best conservation strategies and drawing other important conclusions about the status of particular species. This technology promises to serve as a powerful tool in the fight for endangered species conservation.