This is only the latest in a litany of exotics to ravage American forests. Sixty-two high-impact insect species and a dozen pathogens have arrived since the 1600′s. Only two were detected before 1860.
The emerald ash borer. Image; Wikimedia Commons
Increased global trade and travel, along with climate change and warmer winters, are all fueling the problem. And the devastation has pushed scientists and foresters to look towards biotechnology for a remedy.
‘Almost every day there appears to be a new forest pest and some of these are quite devastating,’ says tree geneticist Jeanne Romero-Severson at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US.
‘Biotech approaches such as transgenic technology and CRISPR gene editing could be valuable tools in saving specific species.’
These biotech solutions look sexier to funders, and policymakers, and that is where the resources go. But in many ways, it is a dead end if you don’t have a foundational breeding programme to feed into,’ warns DiFazio, a plant geneticist at West Virginia University, US.
A technology like CRISPR for gene editing is fast and powerful, but mostly it is used in lab organisms where much is known about their genetics. Without deep knowledge of a tree’s genome, CRISPR will be far less useful.
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that first came to prominence in the 1990′s and is considered one of the most disruptive technologies in modern medicine.
Powell, a plant scientist at the State University of New York (SUNY), US acknowledges that ‘the biggest thing is to the get the public onboard; a lot of people are afraid of genetic engineering.
Surveys suggest that knowledge about genetic engineering technology, as well as about threats to forest health, is fairly low amongst the general public. Given these deficits, ‘public opinion might be vulnerable to changes,’ notes Delborne.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. First, we are delving into genetics and molecular biology – from Darwin’s legacy, to the structure of DNA and now modern molecular techniques.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most famous scientific theories in biology to come from Britain. Before Charles Darwin famously published this theory, several classical philosophers considered how some traits may have occurred and survived, including works where Aristotle pondered the shape of teeth.
These ideas were forgotten until the 18th century, when they were re-introduced by philosophers and scientists including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
Darwin used birds, particularly pigeons and finches to demonstrate his theories. Image: Pixabay
In 1859, Darwin first set out his theory of evolution by natural selection to explain adaptation and speciation. He was inspired by observations made on his second voyage of HM Beagle, along with the work of political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on population.
Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’, thinking of it as like the artificial selection imposed by farmers and breeders. After publishing a series of papers with Alfred Russel Wallace, followed by On the Origin of Species, the concept of evolution was widely accepted.
Although many initially contested the idea of natural selection, Darwin was ahead of his time, and further evidence was yet to come in the form of genetics.
Gregor Mendel first discovered genetics whilst working on peas and inheritance in the late 19th century. The unraveling of the molecular processes that were involved in this inheritance, however, allowed scientists to study inheritance and genetics in a high level of detail, ultimately advancing the field dramatically.
A major discovery in the history of genetics was the determination of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).
DNA was first isolated by Swiss scientists, and it’s general structure – four bases, a sugar and a phosphate chain – was elucidated by researchers from the United States. It was a British team that managed to make the leap to the three-dimensional (3D)structure of DNA.
Using x-ray diffraction techniques, Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, discovered that the bases of DNA were paired. This lead to the first accurate model of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. The work was initially published in Nature in 1953, and would later win them a Nobel Prize.
The age of genetic wonder. Source: TED
By understanding the structure of DNA, further advances in the field were made. This has lead to a wide range of innovations, from Crispr/CAS9 gene editing to targeted gene therapies. The British-born science has been utilised by British pharmaceutical companies – pharma-giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca use this science today in driving new innovations.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene editing tool that is swiftly becoming a revolutionary new technology. It allows researchers to edit the genome of a species by removing, adding or modifying parts of the DNA sequence.
To alter DNA using CRISPR, a pre-designed sequence is added to the DNA using a RNA scaffold (gRNA) that guides the enzyme Cas9 to the section of DNA that scientists want to alter. Cas9 ‘snips’ the selected sequence.
At this point, the cell identifies the DNA as damage and tries to repair it. Using this information, researchers can use repair technology to introduce changes to the genes of the cell, which will lead to a change in a genetic trait, such as the colour of your eyes or the size of a plants leaf.
Cas9 unzips the selected DNA sequence as the latter forms bonds to a new genetic code. Adapted from: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
Public approval of genetic modification is at an all-time high, with a recent YouGov survey finding only 7% of people in the UK oppose gene editing, although there is still a way to go. Lighter regulation in recent years has allowed smaller companies and academic institutions to undertake research.
The future of farming
One of the industries that has benefited from CRISPR is agriculture. The ongoing GM debate is an example of controversial use of transgenesis, the process of inserting DNA from one species into another, spawning fears of ‘Frankenstein foods’.
Instead of creating mega-crops that out-compete all conventional plants, gene editing provides resistance to harsh environments and infections; particularly significant in the context of global food security.
Although gene-editing has been a staple of new agriculture technology for many years now, it is only recently that CRISPR has seen successful use in human disease research and resulting clinical trials.
Scientists at the Salk Institute, California, successfully removed the MYBPC3 gene, linked to a common form of heart disease, from a human embryo. The correction was made at the earliest stage of human development, meaning that the condition could not be passed to future generations.
CRISPR is also being used to study embryo development. Recently, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, London, discovered that the gene OCT4 was vital in these early stages, although its purpose is still not fully understood. Researchers involved believe that more research into OCT4 could help us improve success rates of IVF and understand why some women miscarry.
A human embryo at day four, taken by a Scanning Electron Microscope. Image: Yorgos Nikas, Wellcome Images
CRISPR is still in the early stages and we are far from editing embryos that can be implanted for pregnancy. Many more safety tests are required before proceeding with any clinical trials, with the next step perhaps replicating the experiment on other mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, the genes responsible for an increased risk of breast cancer.
Experts are confident, however, that this technique could be applied to thousands of other diseases caused by a single mutation, such as cystic fibrosis and ovarian cancers.
The benefits of gene editing are abundant. For example, we may be able to turn the tables on antibiotic-resistant bacteria or ‘super-bugs’ by engineering bacteriophages - viruses that infect bacteria - to target antibiotic resistance genes, knocking them out and allowing conventional antibiotics to work once again. Elsewhere, CRISPR could be used to modify metabolic pathways within algae or corn to produce sustainable and cost-effective ethanol for the biofuel market.
Is CRISPR ethical?
CRISPR and gene editing will revolutionise many industries, but the fear remains in many that we will slip into a society where ‘designer babies’ become the norm, and individuality will be lost.
Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of the Centre for Genetics and Society, said in a statement: ‘We could all too easily find ourselves in a world where some people’s children are considered biologically superior to the rest of us.’
Could CRISPR lead to a new generation of superheros? Image: Cia Gould
Dr Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute, disagrees. ‘I personally feel we are duty bound to explore what the technology can do in a safe, reliable manner to help people. If you have a way to help families not have a diseased child, then it would be unethical not to do it,’ he said.
Genetic engineering does not have to have an all-or-nothing approach. There is a middle ground that will benefit everyone with correct regulation and oversight. With its globally renowned research base, the UK government has a great opportunity to encourage genetic experiments and further cement Britain’s place as the genetic research hub of the future.