Sunday, March 13, 2016

Global Solution to Extinction

                                             Comments due by March 28, 2016.

DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11­year ­old living with my family in a low­ income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety. Seventy­six years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw. But today the dream is at risk. Civilization is at last turning green, albeit only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment — on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human­ forced climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both. So, what exactly is the current condition of the living environment, in particular its biological diversity and stability? How are we handling this critical element of Earth’s sustainability? To begin, how many species of organisms are known on the planet? Here, our knowledge is pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million species have been discovered, described and given a Latinized scientific name. But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea (which I like to call together the dark matter of biology because so little is understood of their diversity), the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million. Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants (with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and other invertebrate animals. And that matters, a lot: These least understood minions are the foundation of the living world. They are the little things that run the Earth. In short, we live on a little ­known planet. E.T. and other alien biologists visiting Earth would, I suspect, be appalled at our weak knowledge of our homeland. They would be mystified by the scant attention humanity gives to the life­forms on which our existence depends. The one major reserve in the United States that has been subjected to a complete census is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fifty thousand hours of field work there by specialists and assistants have yielded records of 3/13/2016 The Global Solution to Extinction ­ The New York Times­global­solution­to­extinction.html 3/5 18,000 species of animals and microorganisms alone, with 40,000 to 60,000 considered likely on the roster when all transients, as well as rare and undescribed species, have been registered. The mapping of Earth’s biodiversity was not, as many assume, mostly completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has only begun. The study of biological diversity is absurdly slow. Today, only about 18,000 new species are being discovered and described each year. If we continue at this rate (I’ve described only about 450 new ant species in my own lifetime), the task of mapping life on Earth, or what is left of it, will not be completed until the 23rd century. That brings me to the extinction rate of species around the world. With data on the best known vertebrate species, and a lot of additional information from fossil studies and genetics, we can put the fraction of species disappearing each year at upward of a 1,000 times the rate that existed before the coming of humans. Most of this loss is occurring in tropical countries, and especially tropical forests on islands. But to bring it home to the United States, consider that from 1895 to 2006, 57 species and distinct geographic races of freshwater fishes were driven to extinction, which is 10 percent of the total previously alive; hence the rate of extinction was just under 900 times that which existed before the coming of humans. The global conservation movement, pioneered by the United States, has raised awareness of nature’s plight, and stimulated a great deal of excellent research. It has slowed the hemorrhaging of species, but is still a long way from stopping it. Conservation efforts are concentrated on the roughly one fifth of vertebrate species worldwide that are ranked as endangered to some degree. We have managed to stabilize or reverse the decline of one­fifth of the species in this group. A better record has been achieved within the United States by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which has brought  more species back to health than have been lost in the same time period to extinction. All this is progress, but the prospects for the rest of the century remain grim. The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say — even though the patient will be dead by morning. Unless we wish to pauperize the natural world drastically and permanently, believing that later generations will be smart enough to find a way to bring equilibrium to the land, seas and air, then we, the current inheritors of this beautiful world, must take more serious action to preserve the rest of life. There is only one rational way to accomplish this goal, and that is to bring the extinction rate back to the level that existed before the worldwide expansion of human populations. The disappearance of natural habitat is the primary cause of biological diversity loss at every level — ecosystems, species and genes, all of them. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat than previously envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable level. The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. That amount, as I and others have shown, can be put together from large and small fragments around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living there or changing property rights. This method has been tested on a much smaller scale at the national and state park levels within the United States. This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so. I have to think that the dream of a boy from so long ago has a chance to endure. Edward O. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of “Half ­Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”

Sunday, March 06, 2016

GE Mosquitoes and the Zika Virus.

                                                      Comments due by March 14, 2016
— In the expanding realm ruled by Randal J. Kirk, sliced apples don’t brown. Salmon grow twice as fast without swimming upriver to spawn. Beloved cats are reborn. And male mosquitoes are unleashed with the sole mission to mate, pass on a gene that kills their offspring, and die. A few decades ago, the foods and creatures nurtured by Mr. Kirk would have been found only in dystopian fantasies like those written by Margaret Atwood. But Mr. Kirk’s company, Intrexon, is fast becoming one of the world’s most diverse biotechnology companies, with ventures ranging from unloved genetically engineered creatures to potential cancer cures and gene therapies, gasoline substitutes, cloned kittens and even glow­in­the­dark Dino Pet toys made from microbes. Until recently, Mr. Kirk, 62, was a relatively unknown, self ­made billionaire, buying up or investing in companies in the biotech world. So when Intrexon acquired the British company Oxitec last summer, it attracted little attention as he extended his reach into genetically modified insects. But that move has thrust Mr. Kirk into the forefront of a scramble to control the Zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with tiny heads and damaged brains. It is rampant in Latin America and threatening the United States. While Zika was not on his radar when the deal was announced, Mr. Kirk now appears to be the prescient owner of a potential bioweapon — Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes, which he says could save millions of people from Zika by causing the population of wild disease ­transmitting mosquitoes to self ­destruct. “I think that we have the only safe, effective, field ­proven and ready­to-deploy solution,” Mr. Kirk, who is usually called R.J., said in an interview in his office here overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. In Piracicaba, Brazil, the population of wild mosquitoes has fallen 82 percent in the neighborhood where the mosquitoes are being tested, he said. If his plans to sell the engineered mosquitoes succeed, Mr. Kirk will fortify his near cultlike status among some investors and colleagues who marvel at his shrewd (and somewhat lucky) investments. Perhaps more important, a victory against the rapidly spreading epidemic could weaken opposition to genetically engineered organisms of all sorts, propelling many others out of the lab, onto the dinner table or into the environment. Now Mr. Kirk must persuade federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit health organizations to place orders. He must counter caution from the World Health Organization and federal officials, who question whether the technique will be effective on a large scale. And he must overcome qualms about genetic engineering that have prompted opposition to the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
“We don’t have experience about living transgenic mosquitoes in the air,” said Dr. Artur Timerman, an infectious disease specialist in Brazil. “What will be the midterm or long­ term consequences of this?” Mr. Kirk is assembling a powerful lobbying effort, employing the law firm Sidley Austin in Washington as well as relying on one of Intrexon’s board members, Cesar Alvarez, the senior chairman of the prominent law firm Greenberg Traurig, and Intrexon’s head of corporate communications, Jack Bobo, who once directed biotechnology trade policy at the State Department. Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the agency was “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to test the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and would issue a draft environmental assessment very soon. But when asked by Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican who represents the Virginia district in which Mr. Kirk has a farm, Dr. Borio said the F.D.A. would not eliminate the opportunity for the public to then comment on the draft. “What we don’t know right now is where the public stands on this in the setting of Zika,” she said later in the hearing. Golden Age of Biotech Selling his mosquitoes to combat an international epidemic could help relieve the pressure Mr. Kirk is under to prove that Intrexon is more than just a collection of odd science projects, and that it can actually make money and fulfill his vision for a new golden age of biotechnology. He considers this time to be a seminal moment in history, one in which the rapidly improving ability to read and write — and rewrite — the DNA code of life will make it possible to engineer all manner of organisms to perform specific tasks.
“I think this is the most significant industrial vector to occur in history,” he said, comparing it to semiconductor technology that gave rise to smartphones and the web. And the same DNA tools can be applied to numerous areas. Intrexon’s scientists, he says, “don’t care if they are working on a primary human T cell or an avocado.” Reflecting that vision, Intrexon uses the web domain name The engineering of life is often called synthetic biology, a vaguely defined term meant to convey more systematic genetic manipulation than the cutting and pasting of a single gene that gave rise to early biotechnology companies like Amgen and Genentech. At its most distant point, synthetic biologists would sit at a computer designing life forms from scratch, then hit “print” and have the necessary DNA made to order to be inserted into a cell. Numerous companies are moving into the field, but Intrexon is “literally the elephant in the room of the synthetic biology industry,” said John Cumbers, chief executive of SynBioBeta, a fledgling trade group. His supporters say that if anyone can pull off such an enterprise it is R. J. Kirk, whom they call an uncommon visionary and quick study, though he lacks formal training in science. When Mr. Kirk tells people, as he often does, that he is just a country lawyer, they know they’re about to get a schooling in biology or business, interlaced with references to history, philosophy and opera. “He has an astonishing grasp of science,” said Dr. Samuel Broder, a former director of the National Cancer Institute who now runs Intrexon’s health division. Dr. Broder recalled one instance in which it took him a day to understand the intricacies of a genetic disease. Mr. Kirk, after hearing Dr. Broder’s explanation, got it in five minutes. Even the hedge fund manager Thomas U. Barton, who made his mark as a skeptical short­seller, gushes. “He understands all businesses,” he said. Still, there are skeptics. It is hard to judge the strength of Intrexon’s core technology, known as UltraVector, which is a computerized system for putting together modular DNA pieces to make complex genetic circuits. The company, saying it wants to protect its trade secrets, has not published articles about it in scientific literature. Some start­up companies, not Intrexon, have taken the lead in the hot new genome editing technique called Crispr. The biggest criticism is that Intrexon keeps announcing new acquisitions and new collaborations, dozens of them in all. Yet no product made with the company’s technology has reached the market, and it is not clear when any will. “There’s a mixture here of spectacle and speculation,” said Jim Thomas of the nonprofit ETC Group, which says that synthetic biology needs to be more rigorously regulated. “What’s curious about this is the way in which they are putting together all these controversial and often failing one
 trick companies and trying to wrap them up in a fancy synthetic biology front.” Intrexon’s shares have fallen to about $37 from near $70 in July, though biotech stocks in general have also fallen. The company’s market value is $4.3 billion, making Mr. Kirk’s 53 percent worth over $2 billion. One big commercial opportunity could be Intrexon’s pilot project to use genetically altered microbes to turn natural gas, which is cheap and abundant, into isobutanol, a liquid fuel that can be used in cars. Investors want to see if Intrexon’s partner, the energy giant Dominion, commits to building a commercial plant, which Mr. Kirk hopes could happen as early as this year. And the Oxitec mosquitoes, while not something Intrexon developed itself, offer a bonus that Mr. Kirk could not have predicted. The mosquitoes were developed mainly to fight dengue fever, and that alone, Mr. Kirk said, made it worthwhile to pay about $160 million for Oxitec. 3/6/2016 A Biotech Evangelist Seeks a Zika Dividend ­ The New York Times­biotech­evangelist­seeks­a­zika­dividend.html?ref=international 6/10 But because Zika is spread by the same type of mosquito, the Oxitec insects, which contain a lethality gene — can be used. When the male mosquitoes are released to mate with wild females, the offspring die before reaching adulthood.
(NYT 3/6/2016)