The Extinction Gene

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In two experiments, each with thousands of mosquitoes, the team showed that the gene drive causes the entire population of mosquitoes to completely crash after a dozen generations or less. The new study succeeded where others have failed due to the decision to target a gene called doublesex , which determines the sex of an insect.

Unlike genes targeted in previous studies, mutations in doublesex rarely arise in nature because a properly functioning gene is critical for development. Although the gene is the same in both sexes, it is processed differently in females. Contact us to opt out anytime. The male mosquitoes were unaffected by the edit. Female mosquitoes who only had one copy of doublesex disrupted were also fine, but insects with both copies of their gene broken displayed a slew of anomalies and intersex features, including underdeveloped reproductive organs and incorrectly formed male genitalia.

The proboscises of these mutant mosquitoes were also malformed, rendering them unable to bite and sap blood. The group tested their gene drive in a population of caged mosquitoes, starting with normal female mosquitoes, normal male mosquitoes, and male mosquitoes that carried a single copy of the doublesex -disrupting CRISPR gene drive.

In one run of the experiment, the gene drive had spread to every single mosquito by only the seventh generation. By the eighth generation, all mosquitoes carried the gene drive and mutant doublesex gene, meaning no eggs were laid, and the entire population died. In another run of the experiment, the drive was spread to all mosquitoes in just 11 generations. If doublesex can mutate in a way that avoids being targeted by CRISPR, but still leaves the mosquitoes fertile, the gene drive would fail. Department of Defense. The next step, now underway, is to test the gene drive in a larger population of mosquitoes caged under conditions that mimic the tropical environment favored by the insects in Africa.

The power is now in your nitrile gloved hands Sign up for a free account to increase your articles. Or go unlimited with ACS membership. Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need. Don't miss out. Renew your membership, and continue to enjoy these benefits. Not Now. Grab your lab coat. Let's get started Welcome! Novak's short-term goal is to develop this method so it can work across a number of bird species. But the ultimate endpoint?

Seeing the passenger pigeon reintroduced in the wilds of the United States. Like the mammoth, the passenger pigeon formed a crucial part of a historic biosphere and was important for forest cycling and regeneration. They kept that process going throughout the forest, and other species benefited from that. According to Novak, the pigeon's former habitat was once destroyed but is slowly coming back as agriculture and mining moves farther inland. However, plant and animal species aren't returning at the same rate.

Novak sees the passenger pigeon -- or a hybrid -- as a crucial piece in that ecological puzzle. Across the narrow sea, miles south of Novak's aviaries, a similar philosophy may help revive one of Australia's unique marsupials. In Tasmania, an island state off the south coast of Australia, the thylacine has long captured the hearts of its residents.

The carnivorous marsupial, part of a class of pouched mammals that includes iconic Australian fauna such as the kangaroo and koala, resembled a lean wolf. It was commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, due to a band of dark stripes that wrapped around its lower back. The last known thylacine, Benjamin, died in captivity in , but the species spurred a mythos on the island. Tasmanian statues, number plates and tourist trinkets all bear the animal's likeness, and it's not uncommon to hear reports of sightings to this day.

The tiger's story is similar to the pigeon's. Its demise came at the hands of human mismanagement and misunderstanding. At the turn of the 20th century, farmers believed the thylacine was devouring their livestock. The government offered up bounties for corpses, and within years of human settlement, the thylacine was all but wiped out. Prominent Australian researchers have floated efforts to resurrect the species over the past two decades, as genetic engineering technology has steadily improved.

The most famous example came in , when paleontologist Michael Archer took over as director of the Australian Museum, Australia's oldest museum and a highly respected scientific institution.

The idea immediately had its detractors. One of Archer's contemporaries, Janette Norman of Museum Victoria, called it "impossible" and a "fantasy," describing it as a "waste of time and research dollars. The project failed and was canned in Fourteen years ago, it was impossible. It was fantasy. And it was well before a team of researchers from Melbourne University, led by Andrew Pask, plucked the DNA from thylacine pups preserved in jars of alcohol and reconstructed the animal's entire genome in Tasmania is wild, green and sparsely populated.

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Pask, like many Australians, is fascinated by the thylacine. For him, the fascination is part childlike wonder and part scientific interest.

I. The Mammoth

The thylacine was a truly unique modern-day marsupial. You've got bears and lions and tigers and killer whales. There are so many different examples of those animals that sit right at the top of the food chain," he explains.

Apex predators are key elements in an ecosystem. They're the bricks at the top of the imaginary pyramid, but their overall effects on the ecosystem touch all the other species in the structure.

Extinction Gene

What would happen if the thylacine was reintroduced to the food chain? When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in , that ecosystem underwent sweeping changes. The park's biodiversity flourished as beavers returned to the region for the first time in decades. Changes to the landscape, due to increased predation on elk, gave native flora a chance to bounce back. But even with a blueprint, the right habitat and good reason, there's still a lot of work to do before you get a living, breathing thylacine. It's far further from resurrection than the mammoth or the passenger pigeon, because it lacks one characteristic defining both those projects: There's no obvious modern-day equivalent species to build a new thylacine from.

The thylacine was a carnivore. It may not be a great starting point, but Pask and his team are sequencing the numbat's genome to see how similar the species are.


With CRISPR, the huge amount of changes necessary to transform a numbat to a thylacine still falls within the realm of possibility -- though not in the immediate future. While Pask says we have a "social obligation" to bring the thylacine back, he acknowledges the goal of his project is not de-extinction. Outside of asteroids, climate change and humongous volcanic eruptions, humans are one of the Earth's best exterminators. Conservationists such as Parrott operate on the opposite end of the spectrum from de-extinction researchers.