Biodiversity conservation and biotechnology have traditionally been opposite poles of biological sciences, with little interaction. However, this paradigm is changing and conservationists increasingly recognise the need for a bigger toolbox and the potential of the novel tools offered by genomics and related technologies.
Prof. Richard Corlett at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) of Chinese Academy of Sciences reviewed current trends in the application of biotechnology in conservation. He aimed to inform biotechnologists of conservation needs and concerns and show conservationists what biotechnology has to offer.
The researcher first asked whether combination of next-generation sequencing (NGS) with universal primers for common barcoding regions (metabarcoding) can become a routine biodiversity assessment and monitoring tool. By consulting a large amount of literature, he found that metabarcoding has shown considerable promise for assessing biodiversity in mixed, bulk samples of taxa that are difficult to assess with traditional methods. However, some technical issues still need to be resolved, including PCR amplification biases that affect species detection before metabarcoding becomes a routine biodiversity assessment and monitoring tool.
Modern biotechnological tools, including metabarcoding and environmental DNA, have potential to contribute to conservation. Resolution and precision will be further increased as whole-genome sequencing for conservation purposes becomes practical over the next few years. Gene editing, gene drives, and de-extinction of wild species are moving from theory to plausible conservation practice, although they face a host of practical, regulatory, and public perception issues.
The researcher was wondering whether the new-editing tools can be used to enhance the survival of endangered species and such modifications would be acceptable to both regulatory agencies and the public. He was also concerned about whether gene drives can work outside the lab and how conservationists can use them to control unwanted species and recover endangered species.
The researcher regards that the key need is to make the new technologies available outside academic research groups (to small labs, government agencies, and the full spectrum of conservation practitioners) while continuing to assess and minimise risks. Knowledge, tools, finances, and communication are gaps between researchers and practitioners. The best practical way is likely to involve three-way collaborations between academics, commercial providers, and end-users.
The review entitled “A Bigger Toolbox: Biotechnology in Biodiversity Conservation” has been published online in Trends in Biotechnology.