Interview of ...Beth Shapiro

«If we want a future that is biodiverse, we need to become more engaged»

12 avril 2024, 22:00


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«If we want a future that is biodiverse, we need to become more engaged»

Beth Shapiro was an advisor to Colossal Biosciences, the company geared towards bringing the dodo, amongst other extinct species, back to life. In March 2024, she took the big jump, leaving academia to join the company as Head of the ‘Science teams responsible for de-extinction and species preservation’. In this interview, she talks about the reason leading to this change and the importance of de-extinction in the conservation and protection of endangered species process. beth.png

You were an advisor at Colossal Biosciences before joining it full-time. What is the reason for leaving academia and taking this step?

Ben Lamm, the CEO of Colossal Biosciences, has been trying to get me to come on full-time since I joined as an advisor. It’s a big jump for an academic to move to a position that is more risky. An academic job is hard to fund for science, but it’s not particularly risky considering the position I had. I had a tenured position with a good university and was reasonably well-funded. But the opportunity to be involved with Colossal is different from an opportunity to work in an academic institution. The amount of resources available to do real science that is intended toward biodiversity conservation is available in academia, but just at a very different scale. Here, I had the opportunity to lead science in such a large organisation that is well-funded, where everyone is motivated by this goal of developing tools that will help to reset some of the negative consequences that humans have brought to ecosystems. The tools are developed for the purposes of resurrecting extinct species and then making these tools available to help modify living species that are in danger of becoming extinct to help them speed up their rates of adaptation to their rapidly changing habitats. This is a unique opportunity. I couldn’t say no anymore.

Now that you’re at Colossal full-time, what changes can we expect?

I’ve only been at Colossal for a few weeks. My goal for at least a few months is to not change anything, but to really understand what is making this machine work, and where I can be most helpful to try to make things move more efficiently. The company has grown. The de-extinction program started with mammoth, and then thylacine, and then the dodo. Because of the structure, I’m imagining that there are lots of ways that these teams are not yet collaborating in ways they could do so to learn from one another and be more efficient. One of the things I have been most excited to see, as an advisor, is that, every time I visited, I was surprised by the pace of discovery. This really is discovery-based science. I don’t want to do anything that will derail that train. What I want to do is bring things together so that the teams can move more quickly toward their common goal.

What was your focus on back when you were in academia?

My research has been in the field of ancient DNA and conservation genomics. I started working with ancient DNA in 1999, when I was a graduate student at Oxford. I worked on the dodo. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has one of the few very well-preserved specimens from the DNA perspective. There are many very well-preserved remains of the dodo in Mauritius. I have been trying to get DNA from many of these for many years, but because of the hot and wet environment in which they are found, mostly from Mare-aux-Songes, it has been difficult to recover DNA. So, I worked on this specimen from Oxford, and we were able to show, in the early 2000s, that this animal is a type of pigeon. That was the first genomic confirmation. I have been fascinated by the dodo since then and have worked on and off on it. I have been on a couple of expeditions with people to Mare-aux-Songes for new specimens. We have collaborated with the Mauritius Museum Council. I have also worked a lot on the ancient DNA in Arctic regions, where it is cold, and the DNA tends to be better preserved. I have done a lot of work on bisons, horses, mammoths, bears and other species that lived in cold places.

My work was to develop approaches to recover ancient DNA from these remains. I’ve worked to develop approaches that can capitalise on the fact that all the DNA sequences that we have are not from the same point in time. So, we can use those differences between the oldest and youngest specimens to learn about how populations, communities and ecosystems have changed over time. There have been changes in the climate and the introduction of people to the landscape. So, the questions are about what makes some species and ecosystems more resilient in the face of these massive perturbations to their habitats. The goal was always to try to discover something from the past that will help us to make more informed decisions about how to protect species, populations and ecosystems in the present from the rapidly rapid changes that are happening.

My research later also started to focus more on conservation genomics, asking questions about how we can use all genomes and DNA sequence information to make more informed decisions about protecting endangered species. I think the push towards thinking about de-extinction is a natural one for people in ancient DNA. For this reason, I wrote my first book How to clone a mammoth. It is a very long explanation about all of the different technical, ethical and ecological challenges that would be faced in any sort of de-extinction project. I wrote another book, Life as we made it, that discusses how people have been manipulating the evolution of all of the species that we encounter for as long as we have existed. These manipulations range from driving things extinct to learning about how to manage populations through domestication, agriculture and conservation.

A lot of people think of conservation as leaving things alone, the very ‘hands-off’ approach, not at all human directed. But in fact, when we make decisions about where species can live, about how many of them can be alive, about which individuals get to reproduce, about what they get to eat, we are taking over the future of their evolution. So, conservation is very much hands-on human directive, which sort of lends itself toward this move. So, can we develop tools that make it possible for us to more efficiently manage species that are in danger of becoming extinct? I see that these sorts of tools that are at our fingertips are going to be necessary if we want to propel ourselves toward a future that is both biodiverse and filled with people.

You talk about conservation in a way that differs drastically from the traditional way of doing it, that is, not touching anything. What has been the response to this approach?

There are two schools of thought in conservation. One is where you just leave things alone, and the other is the idea that it’s too late to leave things alone. Our footprint is too big; there’s not a single place on earth where you can’t see the impact of people. This means that if we want a future that is biodiverse, we need to become more engaged, whether that means doing things like measuring the amount of diversity that’s in populations, or identifying corridors that connect populations that are isolated because of human encroachments and allowing animals to pass through those corridors. Those are all manipulations that we make to ecosystems. I don’t necessarily think it’s a new approach to conservation. It’s more of an acknowledgment that when we are conserving things, we have to understand them and create opportunities for populations to rebound.

Conservation doesn’t necessarily mean manipulating genomes. It can be building bridges over highways that allow individuals to move. Or physically moving individuals between populations that suffer from inbreeding because connectivity between populations has been completely obliterated by humans. We will need to embrace these types of intervention if we want a future that is rich with biodiversity, and also has a place for and the capacity to feed all of us.

Coming back to de-extinction, where has the dodo project reached?

Right now, we are trying to develop the conditions for growing primordial germ cells and working on generating the genomic resources for other pigeons that are closely related to the dodo. We have all of them; we can line up all of these pigeon genomes and then get a much better idea of what we will want to change if we want to create a bird that is more closely related to the dodo. One of the things that is super interesting about the dodo and different from the Nicobar pigeon is the shape of the face. So, we need to find what in the DNA sequence leads to that very unique physical characteristic of the dodo. This is also something that is underway right now. There is also the collaboration with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation for identifying habitats where it might be suitable to reintroduce these animals. This is really important since we often focus just on the technology. But we also need an ecosystem that is functioning and a healthy place to put those animals once they are around.

There has been an acceleration of animals in precarious positions throughout the world. Do you think that soon, governments will come banging on your door as- king for help to save endangered species?

This is essentially my motivation for joining Colossal. We are facing this biodiversity extinction crisis, and often, we don’t know what to do. There are so many problems, and so many different technological, ecological and ethical hurdles that we have anxiety paralysis. What do we do? Where do we focus our attention? What I like about Colossal is that we are working on three different species, a marsupial, a mammal and a bird. They have different technological needs, different ecological challenges and involve different communities of people we are working with in order to come up with a shared approach. If you just have this massive crisis and you don’t really know what to do to even get started to fix it, you just sit there. But with three very specific goals, you can actually write down exactly what you need to do to get there, and you can start solving those problems one at a time. There’s going to be increasing need for the technology that Colossal is developing, and that is why I think it’s important that we are actually doing it.