Research aiming to protect biodiversity receives UW2020 grant award

June 30, 2020

As climate change, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species threaten the health of ecosystems around the world, many scientists warn that the planet is in the midst of a mass extinction, in which species are being lost at faster rates than seen in millions of years.

But researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are committed to curtailing these effects by finding innovative and effective ways to protect biodiversity.

Francisco Pelegri, professor of genetics at UW–Madison, and Elizabeth Hennessy, assistant professor of history and environmental studies at UW-Madison, are collaborating on a project that aims to safeguard biodiversity through methods grounded in genetics and cellular development. Recently, their research was awarded a grant from UW2020, an initiative funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that seeks to support groundbreaking research at UW–Madison.

Since 2016, UW2020 has been committed to funding projects that are high-risk, high-impact, and transformative to a field of study. All grant proposals are reviewed by faculty across campus, who award funding to multidisciplinary projects that are focused on making discoveries that will change people’s lives. Recently, Pelegri and Hennessy’s proposal was chosen for the sixth round of UW2020 awards.

Pelegri, who is the principal investigator of the project, purposes to restore threatened ecosystems through novel cloning technology and improved methods of storing genetic material. The project focuses on developing inter-species cloning, a reproduction process in which the recipient egg and the donor nucleus are derived from two different species.

At first mention of inter-species cloning, many may be tempted to think of fantasies such as Jurassic Park or the resurrection of the wooly mammoth. But Pelegri is not as interested in resurrecting extinct species as he is about saving the species that currently occupy Earth.

Past attempts at inter-species cloning have largely failed, which Pelegri said is because the species used have been too distantly related, and that attempts to resurrect species have been initiated too late and with little planning.

Pelegri referenced the infamous failed attempt to resurrect the ibex, a type of mountain goat that went extinct in the early 2000s. By inserting the nuclei from an ibex’s skin cell into a domestic goat egg, a newborn ibex was born, only for the clone to die seven minutes later. With no samples left to reattempt the process, the ibex was unable to be saved, and the species was lost forever.

Pelegri said the goat and the ibex were presumably a little bit too far apart for them to be viable candidates for inter-species cloning, and that had eggs from a species that is more closely related to an ibex been used, the cloning could have been successful.

However, Pelegri said that the decision to use eggs from domestic goats was based on convenience, rather than scientific reasoning, and that “there are a lot of cases like this,” such as attempts to clone a panda by enucleating rabbit eggs or a whale using pig eggs.

But instead of continuing these seemingly random pairings, Pelegri said that it is important to develop a systematic way for testing and conducting inter-species cloning. For this, Pelegri pointed to “model system biology,” a process in which an in-depth study of a single species is used to develop fundamental knowledge that can then be applied to other situations.

For example, the Danionin family of fish includes the extensively studied zebrafish, and Pelegri aims to develop a model system for inter-species cloning by methodically testing Danionin characteristics and relatedness. In doing so, Pelegri seeks to pinpoint the qualities that allow for or interfere with inter-species cloning.

“We want to do it systematically,” said Pelegri. “How far apart in the tree of life can you go [for the cloning] to still work? And if it doesn’t work, why doesn’t it work, and can you correct it?”

In addition to studying Danionin fish, Pelegri has also initiated research on amphibians in Costa Rica and bee populations within the UW Arboretum. Ultimately, Pelegri said his research could result in the discovery of different “clusters” of species within the tree of life that are compatible with one another for inter-species cloning, bringing humans one step closer to restoring endangered populations.

“The whole point of this is to potentially regenerate a species,” said Pelegri. “Very, very clearly and unapologetically, this [is about] conservation genetics.”

But Pelegri also recognizes that in order to truly restore an endangered population, it is imperative that protective measures be taken before a species begins to decline.

In the case of the ibex, Pelegri said that the revival attempt was unsuccessful not only because the goat and ibex were incompatible, but also because the effort was initiated too late, after the species had already gone extinct.

“It’s very sad because there was no planning at all,” said Pelegri. “The reason the species died is because there were already too few left… It was a lost cause from the first place.”

Pelegri said that in order to save a declining species, studies show that ideally 500 individuals are needed to restore a population. Consequently, if scientists are to save a species from going extinct, they must have access to sufficient genetic diversity.

Meeting this need inspired the second aim of Pelegri’s research; to explore more efficient and economical ways of preserving the genetic material.

“What we want to do is [find] ways to store genetic diversity before it goes away,” said Pelegri. “You need to have the samples ahead of time. Once you have them you can work with them.”

Pelegri said that existing biobanking technology, which relies upon large freezers to store genetic samples, is very resource intensive, inefficient, and expensive. In order to reduce the cost and maintenance of biobanking, Pelegri is looking to nature, asking the question, “How do you store an animal cell like a plant seed?”

 “The solution is already out there in nature,” said Pelegri. “[The question is,] can we use those solutions to try to preserve animal cells more sustainably?”

Possible solutions include eggshells and natural anti-desiccants, which are highly effective at preserving genetic material.

By continuing to explore novel biobanking methods, Pelegri hopes to be able to preserve the genetic diversity needed to restore an entire ecosystem, leading to the third aim of his research, to biobank enough genetic material to rebuild a healthy population, and then regenerate the population through inter-species cloning.

Successfully restoring a declining population will provide proof-of-principle for using inter-species cloning for conservation purposes, which is the primary goal of Pelegri’s research. But to achieve this goal, Pelegri says many will be needed, which has provided a unique opportunity for UW–Madison students to join the project.

Student involvement in the research began five years ago, when Pelegri designed the capstone course, “Genetics 527: Developmental Genetics for Conservation and Regeneration.” The course gives students the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary methods for biodiversity preservation while actively participating in the research project. Since then, a spring break study abroad course has also been created, where students are tasked with biobanking amphibians in Costa Rica.

Pelegri said he wanted to create a class “where undergraduates feel that they are making a difference.” Pelegri has witnessed the class grow from just four or five students in its beginnings to 50 students this year. In addition to their assistance with biobanking, Pelegri said that students are also encouraged to share their knowledge, which has led to valuable research insight.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned is from teaching the class and also from the students themselves,” Pelegri said. “Getting undergraduates involved is always a good idea… They are very motivated, they care a lot, and they have the time to do it – it’s part of their training.”

Looking to the future, Pelegri aspires to biobank entire ecosystems, safeguarding them from ecological disaster and “helping them stay strong” when needed.

But this research also poses new ethical dilemmas, such as who or what entity owns cloned species, how to prioritize limited funding, and what the social effects of conservation cloning may be. Addressing these issues, Hennessy is exploring the ethics of using inter-species cloning for conservation purposes.

Serving as a co-principle investigator on the project, Hennessy is taking a close look at environmental regulations and ethics literature to help address some of the ethical concerns presented by the research. Of particular interest to Hennessy is the social impact, as she said that attempts to revive a species has the potential to impact people’s daily lives.

“This isn’t just a scientific and ecological or biological process – it’s also always a social process,” said Hennessy. “Conservation always takes place within a social landscape, so I am also interested in learning about what local communities think about these issues, what their priorities might be, and how those fit together with the priorities of partner conservation institutions.”

Pelegri also believes these ethical considerations to be vital components of the project. While many scientists may feel restricted by regulations and ethical concerns, Pelegri said that these considerations are both important and necessary, and that they will remain central to the project’s mission.   

In support of these endeavors, Pelegri expressed his gratitude for the funding from UW2020, which he said allows him and his team to “be free to explore all these ideas with no constraint.”

Out of 92 proposals submitted from across campus, Pelegri’s research was one of 12 projects selected for this most recent round of grants. Acknowledging that insufficient funding is one of the greatest challenges facing researchers, Pelegri said he is thankful that with the UW2020 grant he can continue moving his project forward.

Likewise, Pelegri said he feels fortunate to be conducting his research at the UW–Madison, where he is supported by campus faculty, staff, and students.

“We’re lucky that we’re in the right place,” said Pelegri. “We have people like Paul Robbins, [dean of the Nelson Institute], who believes in conservation, but also in innovation. We have the University of Wisconsin that believes in the ‘Wisconsin Idea’… and we have lots of really high-quality students who care about learning while at the same time making a difference… It’s all very rewarding, and it’s all very important.”