Genetics is the Future

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

eric_week4_picAnimals were the first to walk our planet. Over time, animals have gone extinct due to various occurrences such as diseases, natural disasters, and changes in climate. Due to the increase in human population and industrialization within the last few centuries, scientists have defined a new form of extinction called the “Sixth Extinction.” This is animal extinction primarily due to human causes. Over the last few years, a number of species have disappeared such as the dodo, the San Diego fairy shrimp, golden toad, ivory-billed woodpecker and the Morro Bay kangaroo rat, all due to human events such as habitat destruction, hunting, pollution, and urbanization. These animals have vanished from the earth with no chance of returning. But the real issue is what about those animals that are currently critically endangered?  

Interns got the opportunity to meet Dr. Oliver Ryder who is the Director of the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Dr. Ryder works to create projects focused on helping a species using genetic research and develops the teams of scientists and technicians that would be working on it. One particular project Dr. Ryder has been part of was the “bottleneck effect” that occurred with the California condor population, in which its population had diminished to only about twenty-two left in the wild during the 1980s. With no knowledge of condor age, genetic diversity, relationship to one another or gender, breeding programs for the condors were near impossible, but with the help from Dr. Ryder and his team, genetics would provide a solution for this dilemma. In order to discover more information about these condors, the Genetics Division was able to sequence the whole genome of each California condor that they rescued. Sequencing condor genomes have provided us with the knowledge of potential diseases, gender of the birds, paternity, and possible mutations. This allowed the San Diego Zoo to move forward in its breeding programs and since the 1980s, over 400 condors have been born with half of them being re-released back into the wild.

Although breeding programs have helped, some California condors have shown signs of a mutation in their recessive genes known as chondrodystrophy, which affects the ligaments in condors. Similar in effect as humans, chondrodystrophy is a skeletal disorder that affects the development of cartilage in their bones. This mutation has caused some condors to be shorter and weaker than others due to the lack of bone development. The disorder has caused California condors to become more vulnerable to predators and other threats in nature. Due to the already small population of California condors, breeding programs are focused on the removal of this genetic disease for future offspring. If any two condors with this mutation were to breed with each other, this could increase the decline the population even more. Monitoring their genetics has given researchers’ insight on the issue and the ability to ensure that the mutation doesn’t continue on to future generations.

Almost 60 years ago, DNA was just being exposed to human knowledge and providing us with more information about what made each of us unique individuals. Now DNA and genetics has taken a stride towards preventing the extinction of future animal species by providing us with new insight regarding diseases, mutations and breeding. As the danger of extinction for critically endangered animals grow, genetic research could become the ultimate hope of saving a dying species. One of the greatest conservation concerns within the last few decades is the decaying species of the northern white rhino, which has an existing population of only seven in the entire world. Originally roaming the plains of Southern Africa, northern white rhino populations were poached to near extinction and the seven left in the wild were moved to Kenya’s and Czech Republic’s zoo and two are currently at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. With only four northern white rhinos able to breed and reproduce, the dire need for genetic research is underway in order to save them from disappearing. Dr. Ryder and his team have focused on three action steps that could potentially provide an opportunity for these rhinos to survive. His team has started to compare the genetics of northern and southern white rhinos to see if there is a chance that crossbreeding would be successful. With a slight chance for the survival of northern white rhino populations, the team is also focused on protecting Ugandan wildlife, one of the natural habitats of this subspecies.

The use of genetic research and technology has given us the tools and equipment to help protect these animals from ever disappearing. As genetics continues to progress, this leaves an unanswered question, whether we should work to bring back extinct animals or focus on rescuing animals on the brink of extinction. Would a “returned” extinct animal be the same? Although it would seem “LIKE” an extinct species, would it really be exactly the same? The Genetic Division is focused on preventing the future extinction of critically endangered species and you can read about many of their projects on the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy website.

Eric, Conservation Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2014