This issue of GeneWatch explores technologies varying widely in their method, but connected by their impacts on the biodiversity of our planet's fauna. Certainly there are technologies which have the very real potential to harm biodiversity—or, in the case of genetically modified Atlantic salmon, possibly entire ecosystems. But some DNA technologies can be helpful conservation tools, particularly when they help us better understand and monitor the species we are trying to preserve. Wildlife gene banks provide researchers with samples to conduct genetic studies on endangered and even extinct species, and genome sequencing provides new insights into what makes a species tick. Building reference libraries of DNA sequences—and importantly, making them publicly available—allow scientists and conservationists to identify a species based on a tiny biological sample. Mark Stoeckle talks in this issue of GeneWatch about DNA barcoding, an approach that simplifies species identification from DNA samples to the point that high school students can uncover mislabeled seafood.
These advances can provide real benefits to global biodiversity, but many of those who have worked to create and improve these technologies will also be the first to tell you that no technology is a silver bullet when it comes to conservation. DNA barcoding can be an essential tool in prosecuting wildlife smugglers or monitoring animal populations, but it won't preserve habitat. Even if mosquitoes can be genetically modified to reduce disease pressure on endangered animals, they won't stop the advance of invasive species. And even if we can resurrect an extinct species from a cryogenically frozen DNA sample, once that preserved species steps off the Ark, what kind of home will be left for it?
Complex problems caused by human actions—and with current extinction rates estimated at anywhere from 1,000 to over 10,000 times faster than just a few centuries ago, loss of biodiversity is very much a man-made problem—cannot be solved without corrections in the human behaviors that got us there. Wind and solar energy play an important role in reducing our use of fossil fuels, but they are no substitute for changing our behaviors to use less energy. Genetic technologies are increasingly useful for understanding and protecting biodiversity, but they are no substitute for protecting habitats. As in so many other cases, it's not just about whether we have the technologies—it's about how we use them.