Synthetic gene drives are a new form of genetic engineering intended to permanently modify or eradicate populations, or even whole species, in the wild. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
After over 78 environmental and agricultural organisations signed a letter this week calling for a moratorium on gene drive technology, EURACTIV took a closer look at the controversial technology to find out about what it is and the implications it holds.
The letter, which was sent on Tuesday (30 June), urges the European Commission to outlaw the release of so-called ‘gene drive organisms’ (GDOs), calling the technology “incompatible” with the Commission’s proposed EU strategy on biodiversity protection. But scientists say the technology holds enormous potential for eradicating some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Synthetic gene drives are a new form of genetic engineering, created via the genetic engineering method CRISPR/CAS9, and are intended to permanently modify or eradicate populations, or even whole species, in the wild.
They are currently defined as a system where genetic elements or traits have more than the usual 50% chance of being inherited, irrespective of whether they benefit or harm the organism inheriting them.
The idea of gene drive technology is to force the inheritance of detrimental genetic traits. In this way, scientists hope to reprogramme or eradicate species such as disease-carrying insects and invasive species.
This is a key distinction between GDOs and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are explicitly designed to contain the spread of modified traits.
Debate about if and how GDOs could be safely employed is proceeding. As it currently stands, GDOs fall under the EU GMO directive but an EFSA expert working group, mandated by the Commission, is currently developing recommendations for regulations on gene drive modified organisms, expected by the end of 2020.
While it may sound far fetched, this is far from mere conjecture, with experiments already well underway both in the EU and elsewhere.
The hashtag #PrayForAmazonia went viral on Tuesday as social media users attempted to draw the world’s attention to the Amazon rainforest, which has been devastated for weeks by fires so intense they can be seen from space.
According toEuro News, it is unclear whether the fires were caused by agricultural activity or deforestation. Both have accelerated rapidly under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who made opening the Amazon to corporate exploitation a key plank of his election campaign.
Twitter users on Tuesday slammed the media for paying too little attention to the Amazon blazes, particularly given the essential role the rainforest plays in absorbing planet-warming carbon dioxide—a capacity that earned it the nickname “lungs of the world.”
“The Amazon has been burning for three weeks, and I’m just now finding out because of the lack of media coverage,” wrote one observer. “This is one of the most important ecosystems on Earth.”
Satellite data collected by the Brazilian government’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) published in June showed that deforestation has risen dramatically under Bolsonaro, who dismissed the research as “a lie” and fired INPE director Ricardo Galvão for defending the data.
As The Guardian reported, the INPE findings showed the Amazon “lost 739sq km during the 31 days [of May], equivalent to two football pitches every minute.”
The number of forest fires in the Amazon Rainforest in #Brazil is up 82% from last year. The fires are purposely set by ranchers to clear land. They then burn out of control. The Bolsonaro govt has eliminated restrictions on burnings. This must be stopped! #PrayforAmazonia. RT pic.twitter.com/cAyUlqjdRz
One large fire, which started in late July, burnt around 1,000 hectares of an environmental reserve in the Brazilian state of Rondônia—located on the border with Bolivia. This blaze, along with others in the region, created dense plumes of smoke that spread far across the state, endangering the health of people living in the area and the lives of animals.
Two weeks ago, the state of Amazonas in the northwest of the country declared a state of emergency in response to an increase in the number of fires there… Various fires have also been burning in the state of Mato Grosso, according to satellite imagery.
The fires have become so intense that smoke from the blaze darkened the afternoon sky on Monday in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city.
“The Amazon rainforest has been on fire for weeks, and it’s so bad it’s literally blotting out the sun miles away,” tweeted Robert Maguire, research director at U.S. government watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.
The Amazon rainforest has been on fire for weeks, and it’s so bad it’s literally blotting out the sun miles away https://t.co/oDjcECJVgp
The advocacy group Amazon Watch on Tuesday called the Bolsonaro regime’s attacks on the world’s largest rainforest “an international tragedy.”
“What can we do?” the group tweeted. “1. Support the courageous resistance of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. 2. Make clear to the agribusiness and financiers involved in the destruction that we won’t buy their products.”
Rainforests are found all over the world — in West and Central Africa, South and Central America, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and Australia — on every continent except Antarctica. They are vitally important, producing most of the oxygen we breathe and providing habitat for half of the planet’s flora and fauna.
Types of rainforests
The term “rainforest” has a wide classification. Typically, rainforests are lush, humid, hot stretches of land covered in tall, broadleaf evergreen trees, usually found around the equator. These areas usually get rain year-round, typically more than 70 inches (1,800 millimeters) a year, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Various types of forests, such as monsoon forests, mangrove forests and temperate forests, can be considered rainforests. Here’s what makes them different:
Temperate rainforests consist of coniferous or broadleaf trees and are found in the temperate zones. They are identified as rainforests by the large amount of rain they receive.
Mangrove rainforests are, like their name, made of mangrove trees. These trees grow only in brackish waters where rivers meet the ocean.
Monsoon rainforests are also called “dry rainforests” because they have a dry season. These get around 31 to 71 inches (800 mm to 1,800 mm) of rain. Up to 75 percent of the trees in dry rainforests can be deciduous.
Most rainforests are very warm, with an average temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) during the day and 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) at night.
A rainforest consists of two major areas. The very top part is called the canopy, which can be as tall as 98 feet to 164 feet (30 to 50 meters). This area is comprised of the tops of trees and vines. The rest, below the canopy, is called the understory. This can include ferns, flowers, vines, tree trunks and dead leaves.
Some animals stay in the canopy and rarely ever come down to the ground. Some of these animals include monkeys, flying squirrels and sharp-clawed woodpeckers, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Animals and plants
The rainforest is home to many plants and animals. According to The Nature Conservancy, a 4-square-mile (2,560 acres) area of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies. The Amazon rainforest alone contains around 10 percent of the world’s known species.
Just about every type of animal lives in rainforests. In fact, though rainforests cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s total surface area, they are home to 50 percent of Earth’s plants and animals, according to The Nature Conservancy. For example, rhinoceroses, deer, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, armadillos and even bears can be found living in rainforests across the world.
Many unusual animals and plants have been discovered in rainforests. For example, the fairy lantern parasite (Thismia neptunis) reappeared in the rainforest of Borneo, Malaysia, in 2018, 151 years after it was first documented. This plant sucks on underground fungi and doesn’t need sunlight to survive. “To our knowledge, it is only the second finding of the species in total,” the Czech team of researchers wrote in a paper, which was published Feb. 21, 2018, in the journal Phytotaxa.
Some of the animals are also unusual. For example, the tapir is a mammal that looks like a mix between an anteater and a pig and can be found in the rainforests of South America and Asia. The stunning silverback gorillalives in the rainforest of the Central African Republic. Forest giraffes, or okapi, a strange-looking cross between a horse and a zebra, also inhabit the African rainforest.
One particularly surprising rainforest find is a spider as big as a puppy. The massive South American Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi) is the world’s largest spider, according to Guinness World Records. Each leg can reach up to 1 foot (30 centimeters) long, and it can weigh up to 6 ounces (170 grams).
Seventy percent of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as useful in the treatment of cancer are found only in rainforests, according to The Nature Conservancy. Scientists have identified more than 2,000 tropical forest plants as having anti-cancer properties. However, less than 1 percent of tropical rainforest species have been analyzed for their medicinal value.
Humans and animals rely on the rainforest to make the majority of Earth’s oxygen. One tree produces nearly 260 lbs. of oxygen each year, according to the Growing Air Foundation, and 1 hectare (2.47 acres) of rainforest may contain over 750 types of trees.
A tree uses carbon dioxide to grow. A living tree draws in and stores twice as much carbon dioxide than a fallen tree releases. But when the tree is cut down, it releases its stored carbon dioxide. For example, dead Amazonian trees emit an estimated 1.9 billion tons (1.7 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications in 2014. The same trees typically absorb about 2.2 billion tons (2 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide makes up around 82.2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Out of the 6 million square miles (15 million square kilometers) of tropical rainforest that once existed worldwide, only 2.4 million square miles (6 million square km) remain, and only 50 percent, or 75 million square acres (30 million hectares), of temperate rainforests still exists, according to The Nature Conservancy. Ranching, mining, logging and agriculture are the main reasons for forest loss. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 720,000 square miles (2 million square km) of forests around the world were cut down — an area about the size of all the states east of the Mississippi River.
Deforestation around the world also decreases the global flow of water vapor from land by 4 percent, according to an article published by the journal National Academy of Sciences. Water constantly cycles through the atmosphere. It evaporates from the surface and rises, condensing into clouds. It is blown by the wind, and then falls back to Earth as rain or snow. In addition, water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, according to NASA. Even a slight change in the flow of water vapor can disrupt weather patterns and climates.
“Rainforests are under increasing threats for many reasons, including logging, clearing for crops or cattle, and conversion to commercial palm oil plantations,” Jonathan Losos, director of the Living Earth Collaborative and William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor for the Department of Biology, at Washington University in St. Louis, told Live Science. “On top of that, the changing climate is having adverse effects on rainforest health. Last year was an especially bad one for the Amazon, with a substantial uptick in the rate of deforestation.”
On the other hand, Losos said, there are some glimmers of hope:
The two countries with the largest amount of rainforest – Indonesia and Brazil – have both acknowledged the importance of these forests and have taken innovative and aggressive efforts to halt deforestation.
There is a growing understanding that halting deforestation and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are closely linked; new, large-scale efforts are under way to address both concerns.
While there is a continued decline in primary rainforests, a bright spot is the fact that in many tropical countries, there is an extensive regeneration of secondary forests, which are critical to supporting much of these countries’ biodiversity.
Earth now facing sixth mass extinction as Hawaii’s “extinction crisis” accelerates
Friday, September 04, 2015 by: Daniel Barker
(NaturalNews) Hawaii is known for its amazing biodiversity, but in recent years it has also become known as the “extinction capital of the world.” A groundbreaking study has just been published that focused on the ecosystem’s invertebrates as well as its bird and mammal populations in an effort to determine just how quickly species are disappearing across the whole spectrum of indigenous fauna.
The results of the research indicated that the loss of species to extinction has been far more serious than previously thought. In fact, Hawaii’s wildlife diversity is being decimated so quickly that scientists now believe that we are seeing the beginnings of a “sixth mass extinction” cycle across the globe.
As much as seven percent of the world’s animal species may have been lost in recent years, according to researchers.
The Washington Post.com reports:
On Hawaii alone, scores of brightly colored, tropical birds have been crossed off the islands’ list of extant fauna over the past two centuries. The same fate came to a number of moths and insects, and as a result, other species relying on those animals are now threatened. One of the islands’ plants, the stout Brighamia, known for growing on Hawaiian sea cliffs, now must be pollinated by hand because the insects that would do it naturally are gone.
By including the loss of invertebrates in Hawaii – specifically the land snail species – the scientists were able to gain a better picture of how quickly the planet is losing species to extinction. The loss of land snail species belonging to the Amastridae family could be as high as 14 percent per decade, according to the researchers.
This time, it’s our fault
Mass extinctions have occurred five times so far during the Earth’s history. The last one was triggered by the asteroid that hit the Yucatan. This time, however, it’s not due to natural forces; it’s because of us. That’s according to yet another recent study conducted by a different group of researchers.
From The Washington Post.com:
In a study published [June 19, 2015] in the journal Science Advances, biologists found that the Earth is losing mammal species 20 to 100 times the rate of the past. Extinctions are happening so fast, they could rival the event that killed the dinosaurs in as little as 250 years. Given the timing, the unprecedented speed of the losses and decades of research on the effects of pollution, hunting and habitat loss, they assert that human activity is responsible.
The scientists involved in this study say they can “confidently conclude” that extinction rates are now “exceptionally high” compared to the past and that they are on the increase, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is indeed under way.
If the trend continues, they say, “humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits.”
Consensus among experts
If you’re tempted to believe this is the mere opinion of a small group of alarmist researchers who are exaggerating the dangers, perhaps you should think again.
A number of other respected individuals and groups are saying essentially the same thing.
As far back as 1998, scientists were warning that a mass extinction event was beginning to occur. In that year, a poll conducted by the American Museum of Natural History found that 70 percent of 400 biology experts believed that “the Earth is in the midst of one of its fastest mass extinctions, one that threatens the existence of humans as well as the millions of species we rely on.”
In 2003, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published his book, The Future of Life, in which he calculated that half of the higher life forms now inhabiting the Earth will be gone by 2100 if we continue with the current rate of “human disruption.”
There are many other studies and scientific opinions corroborating Wilson’s predictions.
It remains to be seen whether or not we will be able to collectively recognize the threat to our planet and our own race and then actually manage to do something about it.