The Re-Origin of Species

New Year, New Thoughts on GMOs

This past summer, my family was in Bend, Oregon, where we explored some lava tubes. It wasn’t particularly thrilling, but the ranger talk beforehand addressed the plight of the area’s bats. Like bats across America, they were in danger of “White-nose syndrome,” a deadly fungal infection which we cave explorers might unwittingly carry on our clothing or gear, from other caves we’d explored. Hey, I’ve read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, and I know the efforts to prevent invasive species from spreading to new territories is well nigh impossible, so it’s just a matter of time before the Bend, Oregon, lava-tube bats succumb to white-nose syndrome.

Or is it?

I kicked off the new year by reading an exciting book that got me re-thinking genetic engineering of the natural world:


Kornfeldt, a Swedish science journalist, kicks off the book with a bang, talking about a Siberian scientist’s efforts to resurrect the woolly mammoth and restore a Pleistocene ecosystem, thus saving (or helping to save) the planet. In brief, because ancient DNA can’t just be purchased, fully intact and ready-for-prime-time at the corner drugstore, little dribs and drabs and bits and pieces have to be revived through insertion in living cells. Say, those of the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative: the Asian elephant. We don’t get the actual woolly mammoth living again, but rather a new creature bearing genetic similarities. I will leave you to read this wonderful book on your own and draw your own conclusions, but I have to say, after Kornfeldt talked about the impact of species “resurrection” on other fields, I was won over.

Take the plants and animals wiped out by invasive species, for instance. Those poor little bats, say, or the American Chestnut tree, which used to account for 25% of American deciduous forest cover, before fungal infection introduced by the imported Asian Chestnut tree decimated billions of American Chestnuts in fifty years. The American Chestnut didn’t have millions of years to evolve resistance to that dumb fungus, so it wiped them out. But what if we introduced, through genetic modification, just that ability? What if we revived the American Chestnut?

Chestnuts provided food for everything from squirrels, passenger pigeons, and insects to people. They were considered tastier than the European variety and were ground into flour for cakes, roasted over open fires, candied, or used in brewing. The timber was used in house building and the bark for tanning leather.

We need this tree back!

Families chestnutting, baby! [Thanks, Wikipedia]

Families chestnutting, baby! [Thanks, Wikipedia]

And we can have the American Chestnut back, through genetic modification. After disappointing efforts to hybridize American and Asian chestnut trees, the rescue changed directions. Scientist William Powell has been working on implanting a single gene, found in wheat, strawberries, bananas, and some other plants, that fights off various fungal diseases. Letting the American Chestnut benefit from the evolutionary and breeding know-how of other plants, that is.

Now, when we foodie types think of GMOs, we rear up in protest because we’re thinking of crops genetically modified to withstand repeated deluges of pesticides. Nobody wants that, obviously. But what about GMOs that are GM-ed to bolster resistance to invasive diseases and species? What about GMOs that are GM-ed to even the playing field in our new, globalized world?

Kornfeldt was very diligent in mentioning the fears and hazards of “playing God” with nature, but, to paraphrase someone she interviewed, we’ve already been playing God, but just not doing it very well. It’s not like nature and the planet are in tiptop shape at this point, so how can we use our new technologies and understanding for good? Let’s save our bats and our native species. If we’re going to mess with genetic engineering, let’s try to save some of our remaining planetary companions.

Read the book, if you get a chance. And, if you want to thank me, you can send along a genetically-modified American Chestnut sapling.