May 21, 2013
Sipping coffee one morning in early April, my eyes quickly darted to an article in my city newspaper by our local hunting columnist entitled “De-extinction coming to Montana.” I didn’t even need to read the column to know what was coming.
Having just read the cover story in the April issue of National Geographic on bringing back extinct species, our columnist — who has spent years fretting over a conservation initiative to restore bison to the grasslands of eastern Montana — now found good reason to fear that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths and other extinct species was headed our way.
Fast forward a week later and I was in Cambridge, England, along with Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva, at an international conference organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society on the topic of synthetic biology and how it may influence the future of nature and conservation.
You may already be asking yourself, just what is synthetic biology? In a recent paper in PLOS Biology, Kent Redford and colleagues, borrowing from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, defined it as “a scientific discipline that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardized and automatable processes, to address human needs by the creation of organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics or traits.”
The Cambridge meeting brought together over 80 synthetic biologists and conservation scientists to learn about each other’s disciplines and explore how we could work together. (It may be easier to think of synthetic biologists as genetic engineers, as they definitely approach their discipline from an engineering perspective.)
April 4, 2013
For the past month, monarch butterflies have caused a lot of buzz in both the news and in conservation circles. The reason: a report published by the World Wildlife Fund and others that documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.
This week, Yale360 published perhaps the best piece yet on this alarming decline, Richard Conniff’s interview with Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. It presents a number of interesting issues that conservationists should notice.
It’s well known that almost the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in a few clustered forests in Mexico. These tiny islands of habitat make the butterflies vulnerable. Many U.S. residents believe that the population decline is, in fact, due to logging in Mexican forests. But as Taylor points out, the Mexican government has done an excellent job stopping illegal logging.
So why the decline?
The study’s authors point to agricultural fields. Taylor suggests that the monarch butterfly is likely “collateral damage” from the use of genetically engineered crops, namely Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. These crops have resulted in significantly higher pesticide use, wiping out the milkweeds that monarchs need to survive.
As Taylor says in the interview:
Now you are really hard pressed to find any corn or soybeans that have milkweed in the fields. I haven’t seen any for years now because of the use of Roundup after they planted these crops. They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.
Additionally, due to biofuel and high crop prices, there are more acres in corn and soybean production than any year since just after World War II. This has meant that a lot of land has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and a lot of marginal land–where milkweeds once grew– has been tilled.
That’s a lot of lost habitat for wildlife, including monarch butterflies.
And here’s where you come in.
March 13, 2013
I was just revising the “marine chapter” for a textbook I have coauthored, and looking at reviews from professors who had taught a conservation course using our first edition. We were criticized for making marine conservation too much about fishing and marine protected areas, while neglecting ocean pollution as a big deal, and probably the greatest threat to our oceans.
It turns out these critics were right.
For much of human history the ocean has been viewed as a place to dispose of waste where it would be so diluted that it does no harm. We now know better.
Dead zones, floating mats of plastics, and toxic chemical residues in marine fish tissue are striking evidence that human waste and by-products could be every bit as much of a threat to our oceans as over-fishing.
Dead zones now affect more than 400 systems, and cover vast areas of the ocean — more than 475,000 square kilometers. Plastic debris in the oceans is now so common it is hard to find a beach without washed up plastics. This plastic is much more than a matter of aesthetics; all sea turtles, 45% of marine mammals, and 21% of seabird species are harmed by plastic.
The sheer volume of human waste products and the fact that most people live along coasts means that there will be no simple, single measure that can address marine pollution.
Take something as specific as cigarette butts — over 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded annually, and researchers have observed a 96-hour mortality effect (measured as LC-50) in larval topsmelt (a Pacific ocean silverside) at a dilution of one cigarette butt per liter of water. Latte-drinking enthusiasts in my hometown of Seattle have given rise to elevated caffeine concentrations in Puget Sound, which are known to cause chemical stress in mussels and other marine invertebrates.
So what are we to do?