Ryan Phelan: How gene technology can save species on the brink of extinction What if we could rescue endangered species before they disappear? Biotech entrepreneur Ryan Phelan explores how genetic engineering tools can save species that would otherwise go extinct.

Ryan Phelan: How gene technology can save species on the brink of extinction

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1071086405/1071227110" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, reshaping evolution - can breakthroughs in altering and controlling our genes herald the next scientific revolution? And it's not just for humans, but for animals, too. Take a little creature named Elizabeth Ann.

RYAN PHELAN: Elizabeth Ann is the most beautiful black-footed ferret.

ZOMORODI: She has dark eyes, little pink ears and white whiskers. And she's also kind of a genetic miracle.

PHELAN: She was cloned from a cell line that had been preserved 30-plus years ago. That's what's amazing about her.

ZOMORODI: Ryan Phelan is the co-founder and executive director of Revive & Restore.

PHELAN: We're a nonprofit based in California. And our mission is to enhance biodiversity by trying to bring biotechnology to conservation.

ZOMORODI: That means using a wide range of genetic editing and engineering tools to rescue a species that would otherwise go extinct, which almost happened to the black-footed ferret.

PHELAN: The black-footed ferret lived all across the American prairie, all the way from the borders of Mexico to the Canadian border. And they live synergistically with the prairie dog in those prairie dog burrows. And, in fact, a prairie dog is its primary source of food. And, of course, the prairie dogs have been considered varmints by many cattle ranchers, which is unfortunate because they actually do improve the grasslands. But cattle ranchers, you know, decades ago got it in their mind that these prairie dogs were competing with the cattle, and they wanted to remove them from the landscape. And so as prairie dogs started to disappear, so did the black-footed ferrets.

ZOMORODI: And things got so bad for the black-footed ferret that at one point it was thought to be completely extinct, right?

PHELAN: Well, actually, Manoush, it was twice thought to be extinct.


PHELAN: And so, you know, this is a species that was first on the brink of extinction in the, you know, mid-1800s, and then they thought they were gone. And then they found small populations, and those disappeared. And then it was declared extinct when - if you could believe it - a cattle rancher's dog brought in a dead ferret.


PHELAN: Yeah. They - the ranchers looked at what he had in his mouth and he went, oh, my God; it's a black-footed ferret. So they, you know, started hunting around on their property, and they found - I think it was something like - 18 different individual ferrets. And they brought them into captivity. And U.S. Fish and Wildlife ever since, as part of an endangered species program, has been breeding those ferrets in captivity and then releasing them very successfully back into the wild.


ZOMORODI: I mean, it's amazing. So it dwindles down to this one 18-member colony - these little ferrets who then are taken in and bred in captivity. And, I mean, is that the story - like, yay, we saved the black-footed ferret - or not that simple?

PHELAN: Well, they - you know, they did save the black-footed ferret. But here's the rub. Of those 18 ferrets that were brought into captivity, only seven of them went on to breed. And what that means is even though over 10,000 ferrets have been born and bred in captivity and released into the wild, all the ferrets that are out there today are basically siblings or half siblings. And we all know that that is not great for the gene pool.


PHELAN: (Laughter) And what's interesting to me about the black-footed ferret is it is in many ways emblematic of what happens to endangered species all over the globe. Once you get these small, fragmented populations, the genetic diversity decreases. And when you start to lose genetic diversity, you decrease their resilience in many ways. It can cause fitness problems. It can cause breeding problems.

ZOMORODI: And that brings us back to Elizabeth Ann - because cloning is a way around this problem of not having enough ferrets in the gene pool.

PHELAN: Yes. So reaching back into time, 30 years ago, we actually discovered something really unique. What we learned when we looked at the genomics of the cell line that was, you know, presciently banked by the San Diego Frozen Zoo back in 1985 was that one of these ferrets, which was actually named Willa, had at - when we did the sequencing, we learned she had three times more genetic variation than any other living ferret. So Elizabeth Ann is a genetic twin of Willa. And Willa never had any offspring. And since the cloning of Elizabeth Ann, we've done further studies. And with new levels of genomic sequencing, we've learned that Elizabeth Ann, this adorable young ferret, has ten times more genetic variation than any living ferret today. That makes her an eighth founder. And that means that her offspring will carry new genetic variation that will help the species in their long-term survival.

ZOMORODI: I mean, Ryan, just put it in context for us. How big a deal is it that she is the world's first successfully cloned black-footed ferret?

PHELAN: Well, I think for conservation, it's a huge deal. It's a milestone for conservation. Cloning has not been used for conservation purposes to actually increase the genetic variation before. They - it has been done in a couple of species for the purpose of seeing if you could actually clone from a frozen cell line. But it was never done as specifically as we are doing, saying these are unique genes, and it's going to be part of a breeding program. That's the profound part of it.

ZOMORODI: Here's Ryan Phelan on the TED stage.


PHELAN: Now, these genetic rescue stories could not have happened without the collaboration of multiple partners and the tools of biotechnology. Emerging technologies of genetic engineering hold the promise of helping species adapt to climate change, solve wildlife disease problems and even help solve invasive species problems. But very often, these technologies never get out of the starting gate because the fear of unintended consequences absolutely stymies even the most basic innovation at the get-go. Probably there's no more urgent need to overcome some of this reluctance to use these technologies than in the case of coral. Coral, as many of you know, are the most diverse and rich ecosystems in the world. And yet, sadly, 50% of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost already to climate change and environmental degradation. Estimates predict that by 2050, we could lose as much as 90% of the coral in the world.

There is hope. Scientists around the world are utilizing new technologies to crowd preserve even living coral fragments that can be transplanted onto artificial reefs. This is just the beginning of some of the work that is pioneering and can happen. I'm most excited about the use of the new technologies for developing stem cells. Now, these stem cells could be used to actually genome edit in thermal resilience to warming oceans.


ZOMORODI: Ryan, let me see if I understand this because I think your example might give some people pause. You are talking about engineering coral using something like CRISPR to maybe splice out or add a gene that would make it more resistant to warming waters, make it survive. I mean, that is basically changing the fundamental DNA of a coral species and then putting it back into the ocean.

PHELAN: Well, it could be, Manoush. That is certainly the engineering approach to it is - would be to use something like a CRISPR technology. And it could be that, you know, you're basically turning on a gene that exists but has been knocked out for some reason over time. But I think other scientists right now are saying we can also use genomics to understand which coral do better and literally transplant them - physically transplant them from one area of a reef to another where they could do better. So you know, there's kind of gradations of intervention. And obviously, you want to do the least intervention possible with the least risk.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Can we talk about the potential downsides? - because there are some people who would say, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We humans have intervened enough. Some people might say, you know, survival of the fittest is how it's worked for millennia. Other people might say, you know - (laughter) I don't know - look at "Jurassic Park." The dinosaurs may not behave the way you want them to. So what do you hear that the fear is about?

PHELAN: Well, I think very often when people hear about anything really innovative, you get a knee-jerk response of, you know, why? You know, what could possibly go wrong here? And you know, it's just sort of an inherent kind of knee-jerk reaction that I think, unfortunately, really puts a lot of innovation at risk because you're not looking at what could possibly go right.


PHELAN: This question comes up so often with any innovation in science. We decided to actually identify just how often, when humans intervene, did they cause the disasters that people fear so much. And yes, your classic stories of humans intervening in nature and causing disasters like intentionally releasing the poisonous cane toad to Australia. Back in 1935, the sugarcane industry brought this invasive, poisonous cane toad in to solve their problem with beetles in their crops. It didn't do much for the beetles, and instead, since 1935, it has continued to work its way across Australia, leaving nothing in its wake and killing native species all along the way.

These disasters stoked the minds of people about fear of intervention, and yet they happened in an era when there was little regard for the overall environmental ecosystem. And they were done, in some cases, even with profit motivation in mind. They weren't done for conservation benefit. And sadly, we never hear about the success stories. So when we looked at the research about what *****

PHELAN: *** happens when conservation intend to intervene in nature, we found a very different story. All across the globe, for over a century, scientists have been introducing and reintroducing plants and animals with no environmental harm.

There have been literally thousands of introductions of native species back into their range that have been incredibly successful across the board. And I think often, these introductions happen completely out of sight and without public acknowledgement that they're even going on. We take it for granted. But, you know, it's a highly curated natural world out there today. And most of it is incredibly successful.

ZOMORODI: So speaking of a highly curated natural world, there's been some controversy over something that's called de-extinction, where scientists are working to actually bring species back after they've gone extinct, like the woolly mammoth, which is another project that Revive and Restore has been involved in, right?

PHELAN: We were involved at the get-go of the big, audacious idea of the woolly mammoth. And we've been working over the last eight years with Dr. George Church. And he has just recently formed a company called Colossal. It is a for-profit venture to bring the woolly mammoth back and to bring woolly mammoths back to Siberia, with the idea that the cold-adapted Asian elephant could actually help mitigate some of the effects of climate change.


PHELAN: The idea is to use a surrogate species as the scaffold and to then change traits incrementally, genetically through CRISPR technology so that you get more and more the traits of the original species that you're trying to, quote, "de-extinct." But, Manoush, the truth is the work that we do at Revive and Restore is really trying to help save those species that are moving towards extinction and to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

ZOMORODI: So if somebody listening is saying, like, we humans have screwed up enough things. We think that we are like gods. I mean, that phrase, I know, is very familiar to you.

PHELAN: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: What do you say to them?

PHELAN: I say that, you know, we have been playing with nature too much. You know, that's why we have the challenges that we have with climate change. We just haven't been doing it with the best intention. And we can now do it with intention. We can now do it in a way that we can help minimize the risk and maximize the benefit of our interventions.

ZOMORODI: There are some environmentalists who say, if we think we can use new technologies like those you've described in the gene toolbox, to save species, to bring some back, then people are going to think that they can keep living the way they're living and not try and stop global warming, stop releasing so much CO2 because we think, oh, well, we'll just use more technology to fix it.

PHELAN: Oh, Manoush, I hear that so often.


PHELAN: I do. And it's often referred to as the moral hazard. You know, if you makes something sound like a simplistic solution, then we'll let, you know, everything go to hell in a handbasket. I don't think that's true. I think that people understand that when we intervene in nature, we also need to do everything we can to protect nature. These are tools of biotechnology - are ones that you don't want to have to deploy. If we could have healthy coral all by itself and reverse all the trends that we see with climate change, that would be an ideal world. But the truth is it's not going to happen overnight, no matter how hard we work. I think people can understand that we can use new tools, and we can protect species. And it is an important narrative to get out there that people need to stop thinking about inaction and to start thinking about action.

ZOMORODI: That's Ryan Phelan. She's the co-founder and executive director of Revive and Restore. You can see her full talk at ted.com.


ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show today, Reshaping Evolution. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner, James Delahoussaye and Katie Monteleone. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Diba Mohtasham, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe. Our intern is Katherine Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.