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Q&A: Can we edit nature to save it?

Environmental conservation typically is about keeping things the same. That approach may not be possible any more.

A portion of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, seen from space in 2015.
A portion of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, seen from space in 2015.EPA

Here is a quick thought experiment: Let’s say you could give some place on earth a much better chance of surviving global warming with most of its biodiversity intact. It could be a wild place or a local forest, whatever comes to mind. Now let’s say this saving grace involved using biotechnologies like CRISPR gene editing to, for example, increase the resilience of plants or animals in the area. Would it be wise to engineer nature in this way? Would it be foolhardy not to try it?

These are the kinds of questions that conservationists Kent Redford and William Adams provoke in a new book, “Strange Natures: Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology.”

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Redford, a conservation scientist based in Portland, Maine, and Adams, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge in England, don’t go so far as to argue in favor of using biotechnologies to tinker with plants, animals, and ecosystems. But they don’t want environmentalists to rule them out, either. Synthetic biology — which allows the manipulation of biological processes with technologies like gene editing and even writing DNA from scratch — might make agriculture cleaner and more productive. It also might be used to preserve endangered species or bring back extinct ones.

Whether such technologies ultimately deliver on these promises remains to be seen. It’s also an open question whether the risks of these techniques can be appropriately managed. But Redford and Adams suggest that conservationists should remain open to the possibilities, without reflexively opposing the use of human-created tools to solve human-created problems.

This interview with Redford has been condensed and edited.

Although humans are obviously part of nature, we also see ourselves as separate from it because of the destruction we’ve wrought. Does that complicate our ability to approach conservation?

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The love of nature shows on TV, which very rarely show humans within them, is a good example of that [separation].

But my opinion is that we have to consider counterfactuals. You don’t ask “What would be the impact of action X?” in and of itself. You ask “What would be the impact if I used X versus what would be the impact if I didn’t use X?” That’s what we’re looking at with [technological] tools for trying to save biodiversity. You may evaluate the use of a given tool, but it has to be compared with what happens if you don’t apply that tool. And the almost inevitable trajectory of almost all components of nature is rapidly downward. Not deploying a tool does not mean you’re going to end up saving nature, because nature is going to hell quite rapidly thanks to all of these impacts of human activities. So that makes it much more complicated to tease out whether the use of a tool would create a different trajectory.

And that’s what the real argument is about to me. It’s not: Is gene editing good or bad? It’s: Is gene editing good or bad in relation to not using gene editing?

How could gene editing plausibly improve the trajectory?

The positive scenario, I think, is best illustrated by rebuilding corals, which are homes for or maintain the lives of countless species of microscopic and macroscopic plants and animals. Most of them appear to be in very bad shape because of acidification and warming of the oceans. If it were possible — if — to genetically alter reef-building corals so that they were able to survive the current or the anticipated future condition of the oceans, it might be possible to maintain some significant portion of the life that exists on coral reefs and, by the way, the livelihoods of humans that depend on direct and indirect uses of those coral reefs.

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[There also could be] indirect applications of synthetic biology to conservation, principally through agriculture. Somewhere between 3 and 11 percent of the Earth’s surface has been degraded and is largely no longer productive of most kinds of life. If we were able to bring that land back into production, both for human consumption and for the purposes of conservation, it would be an extraordinary act of truly global significance. And there is interest, at a very early stage, in trying to imagine what you would need to do to engineer soil microbes to increase the productivity of soils.

What’s a scenario in which biotechnology worsens the trajectory?

The biggest concern that people have is with engineered gene drives [a technique for making genetic alterations to an organism more likely to propagate through its future generations]. The concern is that the modified sequences will create some super-invasive species that would make habitats of other species even worse than they are currently.

One point you make in the book is that thinking expansively about environmental protection requires people to move beyond framing things as either natural or unnatural. As we’ve seen in the furor over genetically modified food, a lot of people oppose things largely because they’re “artificial.”

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It has been my experience that people are more comfortable when there are binaries: yes or no, male or female, Republican or Democrat, anti-vax or pro-vax, whatever it happens to be. It’s because it takes work to figure out what’s in between. I think there also is an essential human characteristic that doesn’t like things of an intermediate nature. And we are saying to people to think carefully about what that binary between natural and artificial really means for how they want to see the world shaped, either through inaction or through action.

If some beavers build a dam, we say that’s natural. If humans build a dam, we say it’s artificial. Is that distinction inaccurate or unhelpful?

No, but what happens if the beaver is building its dam on a river which is just below a [human] dam, and the humans flush their dam and the water washes away the beaver dam? In that case, how do we think about whether that dam was natural if it was placed on a human-dammed river?

In other words, [“natural” and “artificial”] are convenient ways of addressing, as a first approximation, how we understand the world. But that is only useful to a certain point. It takes work to think more carefully about the way this duality actually drapes itself over the world in which we live.

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You may have seen a recent piece about something truly extraordinary: Lovebirds, a form of parrot, are exotic in Arizona — they’re invasive, they were released. The only reason they can survive the summers is they have learned to go to the [vents] of building air conditioners when the temperatures reach the lethality point for them, and they can cool down until evening comes and fly away and be safe. That is not an isolated example about the ways that nature and artificiality have become interdigitated in this world.

So would it be pointless now to insist we should leave nature alone?

That’s exactly the question that we are hoping the book will cause to rise to the surface for people — only in this case, it’s not lovebirds and air conditioners. It’s nucleotides and genomes.

The way that people respond to that question says a lot about their internal value structure and their belief in the beneficial qualities of human action versus the destructive qualities of human action. We recount briefly in the book that we received a letter before we held our first meeting in 2013 on this topic, from a person who wrote, “You’re drug addicts who believe that one more dose will finally make your life good. Only for you, the drugs are technology. Technology has put us where we are now, and you think that you can use it to fix all the ills of where we are now.” Fair enough. I mean, that’s a very well-articulated and powerfully presented position, and it’s one that some people hold. It’s not one that Bill and I hold because it’s a rapturous dream about the world that doesn’t accord with what most of us see when we look around.

Environmental conservation is an act of control. Sometimes conservationists cut and burn trees and plants, move animals in and out, restore landscapes. The wilderness is managed. But all those actions, when they’re done well, are being done to promote biodiversity. Should greater biodiversity be our lodestar regardless of whether it involves acts that are “natural” or “unnatural”?

We may have to change things in order to save them, right? But there are some people whose position is that we have no right as ethical beings to undertake those changes. That’s one position, and it’s not one I personally hold, but it’s one that is held very strongly by some of the most vocal opponents.

To me, it’s more complicated: What we need to maintain is not stasis but the ability to change — evolutionary potential. Right now, conservation is pretty much locked down on trying to keep things the way they were. The concern we have is: We need to allow them to change as the world itself is changing.

Are you an optimist about the fate of nature?

I consider myself an optimist about the fate of nature, writ large. If you asked me to bet on any particular species, I’m not so sure that I would be, point by point. But collectively, yes.


Brian Bergstein can be reached at brian.bergstein@globe.com.