Genome sequencing and genetic engineering could help protect ocean ecosystems

Illustration illustrating the conservation actions and interventions discussed in this essay and showing the main infrastructure required for each. The numbers relate to the following actions/interventions: 1. Gene rescue (translocation); 2. Design and spatial planning of marine protected areas; 3. Identification and delimitation of species; 4. Assisted gene flow (translocation) and restoration (provenance); 5. Biobanks; 6. Assisted evolution (via managed breeding; 7. Biodiversity monitoring; 8. Early warning biomarkers of invasive species and pests; 9. Fight against illegal fishing and mislabelling; 10. 11. Microbiome manipulation 12. Microbial bioremediation 13. Mitigation of ex situ marine stressors 14. Provision of ex situ marine life services 15. Evolutionary rescue via genome editing 16. Pest control 16. 17. De-extinction 18. Genomic vulnerability analyzes Credit: van Oppen MJH and Coleman MA, 2022 , PLOS Biologie, CC BY 4.0

Advanced genomic approaches hold promise for marine conservation

Although genetic and genomic technologies have enormous potential to protect marine life, they are currently underutilized. Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Melbourne and Melinda Coleman of the Department of Primary Industries in New South Wales, Australia, support this point in an essay published October 17.e in PLOS Biologyan open access journal.

There is no part of our oceans that is untouched by humans. Vital ecosystems such as coral reefs, sea grass beds and kelp forests are all in decline due to climate change and other human disturbances. In their essay, van Oppen and Coleman propose that the use of genetic and genomic approaches hold tremendous promise for advancing marine conservation and restoration, both through traditional strategies and more recent developments, such as evolution. assisted.

Environment DNA (eDNA) refers to organism DNA that can be found in the environment. Environmental DNA comes from cellular material released by organisms (via skin, feces, etc.) into aquatic or terrestrial environments that can be sampled and monitored using new molecular methods. These techniques are crucial for the early detection of invasive species as well as the detection of rare and cryptic species.

For example, DNA sequencing can now identify illegally harvested seafood to protect endangered species. DNA in seawater samples, called environmental DNA, is becoming a more feasible alternative or complement to traditional scuba diving-based surveys of marine biodiversity, and can also be used to monitor epidemics and the spread of invasive species. Additionally, there are genomic techniques that could help fisheries keep tabs on fish stocks and monitor how fish are adapting to stressors in their environment.

Looking to the future, van Oppen and Coleman point to multiple technologies in development that could benefit ocean life. Just as humans take probiotics for gut health, specific bacterial and fungal species could be identified or modified to benefit the health of wildlife, such as corals. Synthetic biology could enable the manufacture of products in the laboratory that were previously harvested from marine ecosystems, such as horseshoe crab blood, and genome editing could be used to help organisms adapt more quickly to their changing environment. Although still controversial, there is also the possibility of using gene drives, which cause harmful genes to spread through a population, to eradicate invasive species.

The effective use of these approaches will require the development of suitable online platforms and enhanced collaboration between different marine ecosystem actors, and the authors call on funding agencies to support these efforts. They conclude that genomics technologies could significantly improve conservation and restoration efforts, but only if the gap can be bridged between genomics experts and marine biodiversity managers.

van Oppen adds: “Genetic/genomic approaches can transform the way we protect, manage and conserve marine life and can help build the resilience of marine species in the face of climate change.

Reference: “Advancing the protection of marine life through genomics” by Madeleine JH van Oppen and Melinda A. Coleman, October 17, 2022, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001801

Funding: MJHvO recognizes Australian Research Council Laureate Scholarship FL180100036. MAC has received research support through the Australian Research Council DP200100201. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.