Genetic rescue has emerged as a powerful force for protecting wildlife during this critical moment. An Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report from 2019 estimated that a quarter of all assessed plant and animal groups were threatened and an estimated 1 million species are already facing extinction, many within the next few decades. Our actions now will reverberate for generations.
In broad strokes, genetic rescue makes up the tools, techniques, and workflows that apply new biotechnologies to the challenges facing the natural world. With informed intervention, humans can induce powerful and positive intended consequences.
Per the cause exploration prompt, Open Philanthropy (and EAs more broadly) should consider adopting the cause of genetic rescue. It is urgent, under-resourced, and offers millennia-scale upside. The field would benefit from philanthropic support, and it provides endless opportunities for active involvement and skill contribution from EAs of all backgrounds. Specific opportunities for philanthropic intervention are bolded below.
The MacGuffin here — the story that starts the story — is a question: can and should we bring back extinct species like the passenger pigeon or the woolly mammoth?
Stewart Brand posed it during a 2013 TED Talk and kicked off a lively discussion and debate. The talk led to meetings with scientists, journalists, and environmentalists from disparate backgrounds. It also led to the creation of a non-profit, Revive & Restore, and an extended community of practice. Many of them were already working the new genetic tools into their ongoing conservation work, and others were thinking about how they might start: engineering a blight-resistant American Chestnut, sequencing the Joshua Tree genome to better understand how it might adapt to climate change, developing coral stem cells to help recover and respond to a warming ocean. The community gave shape to the common challenges and opportunities of this nascent field.
After ten years of research and learning-by-doing the original question has become an urgent new calling. Ryan Phelan, Co-founder and Executive Director at Revive & Restore, shared the news at TED last year: the toolset needed to potentially resurrect extinct species can and should be used right now to protect and save currently endangered species.
This is not an obvious insight. In fact, the idea of human intervention in ecosystems — relocations, assisted migrations, biological controls — commonly evokes concerns about unintended consequences and impacts. This knee-jerk reaction is prevalent enough that Phelan and the team organized a meeting and edited a special issue of Conservation Science and Practice on “intended consequences” to clear up the misconceptions. In reviewing more than 1,700 cases of conservation translocations and issued biological controls, the team found that the interventions “routinely yielded conservation gains.”
The data tells us the just-so stories of hubris, like the invasive cane toad in Australia, are greatly outnumbered by the pragmatic reality of successful interventions like the California condor. We know that good science, carefully applied, can yield good results. Genetic rescue adds even more precision to the circumstances where captive breeding, assisted reproduction, or biological control is necessary.
Conservation is a living philosophy, an idea that must evolve along with the needs and demands of both ecosystems and civilization. Genetic rescue represents a technology shift and a philosophical change. Conservation is moving beyond a scientific "crisis" discipline to an applied engineering field, but it is not a tradeoff. Just as the emergence of conservation biology in the 1980s did not displace the role of land preservation or the value and importance of Indigenous knowledge and management, these conservation biotechnologies are additive. They are new tools in the toolbox and should be further developed to the point that they are ready and accessible when communities decide they need them. Growing the field means creating more and better options.
Unfortunately, conservation technology is woefully undersupported, both in terms of funding and talent. From a wider lens, the category of “environment/animals” receives a small proportion of overall philanthropic support in the U.S, and that includes zoos and animal rights organizations. Even within conservation funding the resources put towards technology development — innovations that can create higher leverage for everyone in the field — are minimal. The growing interest in funding “climate tech” has brought both money and talent into addressing climate change, but only a small percentage of those companies are putting any attention to biodiversity issues and there’s still a glaring shortfall for nature-based solutions. There are organizations like Conservation X Labs, Wildlabs, and SuperOrganism building momentum, but they’re still nascent. Corporations like Microsoft and Salesforce are leaning into the responsibility, but in relatively small ways given the scale of the challenge. In general, conservation funders don’t fund technology, and technologists don’t fund or build tools for conservation.
Biotechnology is poised to be the most important conservation technology yet. Given the staggering losses of biodiversity, we need to develop these tools as soon as possible. Genetic rescue is a moral imperative with immediate action items.
Here's what we need to do:
We need an inventory. Sequencing every living species will enable us to take stock of the genetic diversity of Earth. Efforts are underway. The Earth Biogenome Project is proceeding down its roadmap to sequence every known eukaryotic species by 2030. Numerous regional and parallel projects are contributing.
We should prioritize high-quality assemblies for species of higher concern in order to improve management and monitoring. The field deserves a permanent "fast grants" program for quick-turnaround funding for sequencing needs — a scaled-up and sustained version of Revive & Restore's Wild Genomes initiative. Companies like Dovetail Genomics, PacBio, and Oxford Nanopore have all made admirable commitments to help. Their programs could be augmented with large Advance Market Commitments to accelerate the work.
The benefits go far beyond the scope of genetic rescue. From potential drug discovery to effective biosurveillance, sequencing everything will illuminate our world. From the special PNAS report on the EBP:
"Every eukaryotic species is the product of millions of years of evolution. Recorded in their genomes are secrets that can fundamentally change our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth—its very existence and essence—and may lead to radical new approaches for mitigating the effects of climate change on biodiversity, improving agriculture, growing a sustainable global bioeconomy, saving species and repairing ecosystems, and preventing future pandemics. Let us go forth and sequence!"
In February of 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a broad partnership of organizations introduced the world to Elizabeth Ann, a newly-born black-footed ferret and the first-ever cloned specimen from the endangered species list. She was cloned using cryopreserved cells from a 30-year-old sample at the San Diego Frozen Zoo which contained more than three times the genetic diversity of the extant population of black-footed ferrets. The addition of Elizabeth Ann to the world offers genuine hope — for black-footed ferrets and beyond.
The success of Elizabeth Ann proved the benefits of well-preserved cells, but it also illuminated a gap. Further research from Revive & Restore found we have viable cryopreserved cells for less than 14% of endangered species in the U.S. There is foundational work to be done in order to effectively and ethically scale the biobanking of wild and endangered species. Groups like the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Nature’s Safe are making important progress, but much more is required. New tools and protocols should be explored and documented. Effective standards need to be developed. Benefit-sharing plans for Indigenous communities should be considered and agreed upon. And plans for both centralized and decentralized long-term storage need to be put in place.
Scientists are already handling many of these species and taking tissue samples for ongoing monitoring. Preserving those cells is an obvious next step. Like the EBP program, informed biobanking should be a decadal sprint on a global scale, and with funding support to match.
The naturalist Edward O. Wilson proposed a solution to the threatened health of the biosphere: set aside half of the Earth's surface for nature. The Half-Earth argument predicts that 80% of species would stabilize given the protection of existing wild lands and the creation of new natural areas and corridors of connection. It's a bold vision and, more importantly, a specific goal. Half-Earth captured the broader sentiment: we need bolder conservation action. The top-down response from government leaders has been encouraging, with NGOs and activists rallying behind the Campaign for Nature — influencing governments to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030. The bottom-up response has been more diffuse and more inspiring. "Rewilding" has captured the imagination of old and new environmentalists. Projects are underway across the world, at every scale, from regional corridors to backyard reclamations.
Rewilding is a larger story than genetic rescue, but they are intertwined. Every genetic rescue story may appear superficially to start with a species in peril, but the thread is quickly pulled and connected to host and symbiotic species, habitat, ecosystems, and economics. It's all connected.
Successful projects require more than good science. They require a community of champions who are eager to make space for the species' return. I call this group the "nesters" and every project needs them. The American Chestnut Foundation has enlisted an army of citizen scientists who are identifying remaining trees, helping with new seedlings, and recruiting new funders to support the science. Adopting the cause of genetic rescue comes with an added bonus: the thrill of rewilding.
Defining and sourcing high-leverage rewilding opportunities worthy of philanthropic support is an area needing more research. The development and success of iNaturalist and Restor shows the potential for new tooling here, too.
All three of these tasks are underfunded given the ambitious goals. Targeted philanthropic support — everything from technology development and deployment, to advocacy and policy work — could vastly improve the trajectory of genetic rescue.
Despite the scale of the challenge, this is not a Sisyphean task. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Major demographic trends and technology curves offer hope that the effort could get easier and more successful. Across the world, people are migrating to cities. Over half of the global population lives in urban areas, and that number will grow to more than two-thirds by 2050. Urbanization and density create an opportunity to reclaim more wildlands. More important than density are the trends for land use. By all accounts, humans passed “peak agricultural land” sometime around the year 2000. Defining a hard line around agricultural land — the area used to grow crops and raise livestock — is difficult and contentious, but a collection of analysis show agreement in the major trend of more food production on less land. This bodes well for the prospects of restoration.
The technology curves offer similar promise. The cost of sequencing continues to fall. Biobanking will find similar performance improvements and cost savings if more effort is applied. The tools and techniques we have for using those preserved cells will improve, too. Revive & Restore's current program to develop advanced reproductive technologies for wild birds is an example of that progress. We will certainly have better options in the future if we're diligent with documentation and preservation now.
Taken together, these demographic and technological trends comprise the "bottleneck" as E.O. Wilson and others have come to call it. By appropriately valuing both non-human lives as well as future humans' ability to experience a biodiverse and bioabundant Earth, genetic rescue stands out as a most worthwhile cause.
"The logical primary goal is to make it through the bottleneck to a better, less perilous existence while carrying through as much of the rest of life as possible."
- E.O. Wilson, Half-Earth
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Ben Novak, Bridget Baumgartner, Ryan Phelan, and Kevin Webb for feedback and edits.
Motivation and Disclosure: I personally believe this cause to be worthwhile and I'm working on it. Currently, that takes the form of funding conservation biotechnology projects on Experiment and working as a contractor for Revive & Restore on their informed biobanking initiative.
Per Bridget Baumgartner at Revive & Restore, another way to view neglectedness is through the lens of potential leverage:
"By deriving conservation technologies on those that are already in practice for biomedicine and industrial agriculture, we are leveraging all prior investments in those areas. So the cost to investors in conservation innovation is heavily subsidized by medicine and big ag. If we don't take the opportunity, we leave all that on the table."