Posted in Panama, Reading List, Russia

Panamanian Frogs, Russian Reindeer, and Gene Editing

What meaningful connections could rise out of a mix like this? It all has to do with pathogens.

Two weeks ago, I set out to keep a Reading History in the hope that I might make some connections between what I’ve learned in school, what I’m learning as a water activist and naturalist, and what I’m reading now.

As you might know, I’m a proud self-employed marketing professional, and I don’t limit my professional identity to the work I get paid to do. While I’ve only just begun to read about conservation in actual books, I think it might begin “to count” if I develop my ability to be conservation-minded, and that includes reading outside of the conservation field for ways to make connections across scientific disciplines.

I believe I have a talent for synthesizing big ideas, although I’m not entirely sure of its practical value in society. Regardless, that is what I would say a blog is for—to write for enjoyment on any topic at any level of expertise without concern for evaluation.

I just finished reading The Code Breaker, which is not necessarily a conservation piece, unless you are conservation-minded, I suppose. Primarily, it’s the story of a group of scientists dedicated to developing the biotechnology that allows us to edit genes. I picked it up for a few important reasons, but I didn’t immediately expect that it would relate to anything about conservation I’ve been reading. However, this morning I had a light bulb moment.

While reading an online article in The New Yorker called The Great Siberian Thaw, I learned about reindeer dying from anthrax on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia due to the melting of permafrost caused by anthropogenic climate change. Anthrax is a bacterial infection caused by exposure to its spores. A spore is a cell produced by fungi, plants (moss, ferns), and some forms of bacteria. Certain bacteria make spores as a way to survive extreme environmental conditions.

Image: Canva | Wild Reindeer

In this case, the anthrax spores were safely sealed in layers of frozen ancient soil until it started to thaw out, at which time the reindeer became exposed. Since anthrax is a bacteria and not a virus, there would not be a vaccine, but here is the question: Could it be possible to use gene editing to make animals and people impervious to it? After reading about the power of gene editing in The Code Breaker, it certainly made me wonder.

And if we could become impervious to the threat of certain kinds of lethal bacteria, viruses, and fungi that result from climate change, I believe it’s worth considering, especially for Panama’s Golden Frog, which I learned about in Elizabeth Kolberg’s The Sixth Extinction. In it, she explains how this colorful harlequin toad has been almost entirely wiped out from a fungal infection, chytridiomycosis, which has proliferated due to human activity and has no vaccine.

Image: Canva | Panamanian Golden Frog

While I have a new basic understanding of gene editing, I can’t help but think of how instrumental it could be in the conservation of near-extinct species. If the Panamanian Golden Frog could become permanently impervious to chytrid through germline editing, which is inheritable, these very delicate toads might have a lasting chance.

Incidentally, in the current mass extinction, humans are the new asteroid. If you haven’t seen the movie Don’t Look Up, parallels and connections to the climate crisis abound.