What Is Disruptive Conservation?

Learn about breakthrough technologies that can re-balance the Earth and reverse climate change. Plus, benefits and examples of progress.

BY Sara Ord

Species and ecosystems are being lost due to human causation. Reversing the degradation of ecosystems is possible through disruptive conservation. We explain how breakthrough bioscience and genetic engineering solutions will bring the world back into balance.

Inside this article:

  • Disruptive conservation and climate change reversal
  • Examples of disruptive conservation at work today
  • A Colossal step forward to help the world heal itself

What Is Disruptive Conservation?

Disruptive conservation is the ethical use of next-generation technologies to accelerate animal and ecosystem preservation. The goal is to return near-extinct or extinct species to their original habitats so they can help restore ecosystems and reverse the effects of climate change.

The name disruptive conservation originates from the term disruptive innovation, first coined in Clayton M. Christensen’s 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Like disruption innovation, disruptive conservation is about the creation of paradigm shifts to solve big problems. 

One of the biggest challenges facing our world is rapid species extinction and related environmental degradation. The root cause of the problem is human activity, and the resulting damage is profound. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that 38% of all species are on the verge of extinction today and that 50% of the 5,491 mammal species on Earth are in decline—20% are in danger of complete extinction.  

Disruptive conservative science can turn back the clock to reverse and prevent the loss of biodiversity by using technologies such as:

  • Species Rewilding: These conservation approaches focus on restoring or protecting natural processes and wilderness areas. Rewilding may include safeguarding or reintroducing the species that influence ecosystems. Without the presence of these species, the ecosystem is dramatically different or ceases to exist.
  • Species Restoration: The goal is to increase the population of endangered species in a specific environment. 
  • Species De-extinction: De-extinction technologies purposely generate organisms that resemble or are the recreation of extinct species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines restrict proxies for extinct species when re-populations of an extinct species are central to an ecosystem for conservation purposes.

Three technologies that generate organisms are:

  • Cloning: By natural or artificial means, cloning produces individual organisms with either identical or virtually identical DNA.
  • Genome Editing: Also known as genome engineering or gene editing, this type of genetic engineering inserts, deletes, modifies or replaces DNA in the genome of a living organism. CRISPR is the gene-editing technique that enables de-extinction.
  • Selective Breeding: This process uses animal and plant breeding to develop specific traits by choosing which plant or animal males and females will reproduce sexually.

New approaches that accelerate the protection of endangered animals and ecosystems are essential. “Traditional conservation and climate change efforts are critical, but they aren’t enough,” stresses Ben Lamm, Co-Founder and CEO of Colossal. “Experts must collaborate across fields and disciplines to build new, breakthrough solutions.” 

Examples of Disruptive Conservation

Examples of the high-impact benefits of disruptive conservation are visible worldwide. Mindful restoration, rewilding, and de-extinction of fauna positively impact flora and their ecosystems. 

Disruptive conservation projects at work today include:

 

  • Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus Sumatrensis)/Sumatra:samaritan rhino
    The only two-horned rhino left in existence, the Sumatran Rhino dwindled to just 80 individuals due to illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss, and lack of government protections. The Sumatran rhino has a fighting chance at survival through relocation and focused efforts to promote breeding in safe environments. The outlook is increasingly positive. Genetics help with de-extinction efforts to accelerate the conservation of this megafauna by continually sequencing its genetic code. With a complete reference genome, the total loss of the species is preventable.

 

  • Florida Panther (Puma Concolor Cougar)/Florida: The only breeding population of puma in the eastern United States, the Florida Panther was listed as an endangered species in 1967 by the Department of the Interior. Today, there are multiple conservation measures in place. The panthers now roam safely on a contiguous range of habitat—potentially as much as 2,500,000 acres in private and public lands. Biologists use selective breeding with Texas pumas to maintain a healthy level of genetic variation in Florida panthers across their historic range. These and other techniques have raised the Florida Panther population to 200 individuals.
  • Black-footed Ferret (Mustela Nigripes)/Wyoming: Every black-footed ferret descends from seven individual ferrets, creating genetic challenges to species recovery. On Dec. 10, 2020, efforts to increase genetic diversity and disease resistance leaped ahead with the birth of a female ferret generated by cloning. Elizabeth Ann came from the frozen cells of Willa, who was alive more than three decades ago. When Elizabeth Ann reproduces successfully, she will provide necessary and unique genetic diversity to the species. Restoring the black-footed ferret is the first successful cloning project of a native endangered species in North America.
  • North American Plains Bison (Bison Bison)/12 States in North America:
    North American Plains Bison
    In 2008, the Department ofthe Interior issued the Bison Conservation Initiative, which manages genetic diversity and integrity across conservation herds in multiple states by relocating individuals and groups.  Wide-ranging bison herds are maintained and established in areas where they fulfill their role as ecosystem engineers. The Initiative’s final goal is to restore cultural connections to bison, especially among Native Americans.
  • Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf (Canis Lupus)/National Yellowstone Park: Early in the 20th century, few wolves remained in Yellowstone National Park. The effects on the ecosystem were dramatic. Elk were no longer forced to look out for predators and became abnormally sedentary. They fed on the willow trees beavers use to make dams. When the beavers ran out of their required wood supply and moved to other areas, rivers became clogged with fallen trees and other debris. The lack of beaver dams reduced fish breeding pools, and the lack of natural buffering led to devastating run-off. In 1995, the Yellowstone Wolf Project reintroduced wolf populations, igniting a slew of chain reactions. Elk had to run for their lives as they naturally do, driving them away from the willow trees the beavers use for construction. This action brought the return of the beavers and their dams. Today, the park ecosystem is rejuvenated and healthier in all aspects, from fish and birds to vegetation and water quality.
  • Eurasian Beaver (Castor Fiber) United Kingdom and the Netherlands: These large herbivores are ecosystem engineers. From prehistoric times, beavers played a vital part in the U.K. and Netherlands ecosystem until they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century. Their extinction led to the loss of bogs, mires, and lakes, and diverse wetlands that bring enormous benefits to birds, fish, invertebrates, and mammalian species. They help reduce downstream flooding, increase water retention and clean water. In 2015, a five-year trial reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver began with breeding and dispersing two family groups in the U.K. and Netherlands. The trial helped restore their ecosystems.
  • Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus Primigenius)/Eventual Return to Arctic Tundra:
    Woolly MammothGeorge Church and a team of world-renowned genetic scientists at Colossal are pioneering a practical, working model of de-extinction using CRISPR genome editing. The project’s goal is to return the Woolly Mammoth to the tundra. The mammoth’s instinctual activity will stir up the icy surfaces of the landscape, stomping out thin, low-oxygen trees and exposing healthy, carbon-trapping grasses. This work will reestablish an ecosystem filled with grasslands to prevent the thaw and release stored greenhouse gases in the arctic permafrost. With light-reflecting grasslands covering the arctic land surface, snow won’t melt as quickly. The result is an ecosystem that can naturally defend against climate change.

The Woolly Mammoth de-extinction project has already made great strides. DNA has been inserted from the mammoth genome into Asian Elephant cells using CRISPR genome engineering. Today, multiple genes are rewritten into Asian Elephant cell lines, generating cells closer to those of the mammoth with each decisive edit. The team is genetically engineering mutations for extra hair growth, mammoth hemoglobin, and fat production into the cell lines.

Along with the prospect of decelerating arctic permafrost melt, the de-extinction project will also help protect modern elephants from extinction. For example, a dangerous strain of herpes is affecting the health of Asian elephants. From the Asian elephant sequenced genome, Colossal is looking to create a version of the virus that can be cultured—the first step in developing a vaccine or treatment. This project is one of the first synthetic biology projects to study and treat a wildlife disease. The Colossal mammoth de-extinction effort is on course to generate near-term benefits to Asian elephant conservation.

The Benefits of Disruptive Conservation

There are many benefits of disruptive conservation, from accelerating species preservation to restoring vital ecosystems. These benefits’ main attribute is that they deliver scalable solutions to help the Earth reach a healthier state.

A 2021 Frontiers in Conservation Science report, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, references over 150 studies detailing the planet’s environmental challenges. The scientists found “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms–including humanity–is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” 

Disruptive conservation offers countermeasures to the catastrophic loss of biodiversity and environmental devastation currently underway. “Traditional conservation efforts, while vital, have been slowly losing ground. Species de-extinction and preservation through gene-editing technology represents an exciting and tangible new movement in science and conservation, one we hope catches the public’s eye and opens doors to a new generation of molecularly-inspired conservation capable of gaining ground and reversing loss,” explains George Church, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Colossal

The interrelated benefits of disruptive conservation include:

  • Wildlife Conservation: According to the World Animal Foundation, one-half of all species could become extinct by 2050. As species numbers wane, disruptive conservation technologies can improve genetic diversity, strengthen numbers, and protect species and habitats. 
  • Bringing Back Lost Species (De-extinction): Humans are responsible for rendering many large megafauna extinct. Bringing species back ethically, as in the Woolly Mammoth de-extinction project that uses genetics, restores the ecosystems they inhabited.
  • Ecosystem Restoration: Rewilding and de-extinction efforts replenish fauna and the flora that create healthy, sustainable habitats.
  • Decelerate Climate Change: Protecting or regenerating animal species and biodiversity can put the brakes on climate change and global warming.
  • Boost Biodiversity: Reinvigorating ecosystems with the reintroduction of species that support the renewal of flora and fauna.
  • Scalability: Reintroducing keystone species that are vital to maintaining an ecosystem is more scalable than traditional conservation programs. These species can be relocated to these environments or generated by de-extinction technology.
  • Vital Ecosystem Conservation: New conservation technologies foster an ecosystem that can maintain its defenses against climate change.
  • Advancing Science: Genetic engineering discoveries and their application promotes human health, enhances food production and sustainability, optimizes animal health, and reverses species extinction. 

The Future of Disruptive Conservation

While there have been decades of groundwork laid for disruptive conservation, new technologies are on the horizon. The future of this practice will involve research and development in genetic engineering, genetic reconciliation, and species extension.

Future disruptive conservation research and development areas include:

  • E-conservation: Conservation needs support from multiple communities. New technologies will play a role in making faster connections that foster conservation research, development, and solutions. Using the Internet of Things to transfer and collect data, blockchain to move funds, and other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, DNA barcoding, rapid sequencers, and bots will speed up the development, collaboration, and funding needed to take disruptive conservation to the next level.
  • Epigenetics: Epigenetics is the study of the changes in inheritable characteristics that occur without DNA sequence alterations. Epigenetic variation links a genome to the environment, provides the required information on organisms’ ecological background, and is useful in conservation biology projects. Non-genetic factors cause the organism’s genes to express themselves differently. Cellular and physiological phenotypic trait effects may be a part of normal development or external or environmental factors. These epigenetic changes can endure through cell divisions for the life of the cell or last for multiple generations, even though the underlying DNA sequence of the organism does not change. 
  • Genetic Engineering: CRISPR is an engineered cellular technology that scientists use for recognizing and cutting a specific code of DNA inside the nucleus. First observed in bacteria, CRISPR technology occurs naturally. Scientists have been able to re-engineer it to work in eukaryotic cells (meaning cells with a nucleus and organelles, all enclosed in a plasma membrane). These are the types of cells humans and animals possess. In mammalian cells, such as an elephant or a Woolly Mammoth, CRISPR works with an enzyme called Cas9 to modify genes. A CRISPR/Cas9 complex will use a single guide RNA from CRISPR to guide and recognize a specific sequence of DNA, where the Cas9 molecule will cleave those strands that complement the CRISPR sequence. Cas9 allows for the reinsertion of the laboratory-engineered DNA to create favorable traits.
  • Gene Drive Systems: A gene drive is a phenomenon that often occurs naturally when a particular gene gets passed down with a greater probability than the usual 50%. The occurrence often happens naturally. Synthetic biology scientists are probing the possibility of exploiting gene drives to disseminate genetically engineered changes over many generations through wild populations. 
  • Genetic Reconciliation: Genetic reconciliation is the act of preserving the genetic information of species with next-generation sequencing technologies. The goal of genetic reconciliation is to produce high-quality genome assemblies of species that are categorized as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN. Genetically backing up species contributes towards the preservation of species genetic information so that they are not lost forever. 
  • Species Extension: Species extension allows species that are at risk of extinction to be given a new set of tools from their extinct relatives so that they can survive in new environments. Via species extension, processes involving the evolution of adaptations to different climates and terrain can be expedited. For species that are on the brink of extinction, slow to evolve due to limited numbers and long lifespans, and are running out of habitable terrain, there are very limited technologies that can aid them. Colossal is developing a species extension pipeline that can be utilized to equip targeted species with adaptations discovered in the genes of their ancestors. 

“Beyond the mammoth, Colossal is productizing the ability to use CRISPR easily and unlocking the power of synthetic biology. That’s the power humanity needs to stave off the worst of climate change and to adequately adapt to the effects we can’t stop. Scaling biotech will fuel an explosion of solutions in food creation, materials and chemical production, and even geo-engineering,” states Michael Luciani of Climate Capital. 

Colossal Is at the Forefront of Disruptive Conservation 

Colossal focuses on the de-extinction and eventual rewilding of the Woolly Mammoth. This resurrection will foster an ecosystem equipped to face humanity’s adverse effects on vital ecosystems. The laboratory is on track to bring back the Woolly Mammoth by 2026.

“Bringing back the Woolly Mammoth and extinct species is an exciting breakthrough, but this technology can also help preserve the species we have,” notes Church. “We want to shine a spotlight on real, tangible results CRISPR offers and spark a renewed passion for conservation.” 

CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology enables this profound project to move forward. The CRISPR/Cas9 system is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods.

“Sharing a de-extinction vision with George has allowed Colossal to build an aggressive path towards thoughtful disruptive conservation to drive ethical species restoration and healthier ecosystems,” Lamm adds.

 Want to Learn More About Disruptive Conservation? 

There is so much to do to restore lost ecosystems. Colossal has accepted humanity’s duty to make a better world, solve for future economies and biological necessities of the human condition through cutting-edge science and technologies.

The Woolly Mammoth de-extinction project is eminently doable. By creating life to preserve life, we are concerned not just with the next generation but those who will be here hundreds or thousands of years from now. 

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