Enabling future-oriented conservation

My dissertation research considered some of the political and ecological questions that have emerged around the use of genetic technologies, including genetic engineering, to resurrect or restore wild species. I draw on theory and approaches from science and technology studies (STS), political ecology, biogeography, and evolutionary ecology, and have focused primarily on efforts to restore the functionally extinct American chestnut using both genomics-assisted breeding and genetic engineering.

Efforts to introduce American chestnut populations resistant to chestnut blight (C. parasitica)– whether developed through breeding or genetic engineering — envision trees that will be released to participate in natural ecological and evolutionary processes throughout the species’ historical native range. However, like many reintroduction projects, academic and applied attention to chestnut reintroduction has been almost exclusively focused on the development of blight-resistant germplasm and the initial phases of restoration, like release and establishment. For a variety of reasons, far less consideration has been given to potential long-term biogeographic and evolutionary dynamics.

The biogeography of blight-resistant American chestnut

While introgressed blight resistance may allow American chestnut to co-exist with C. parasitica, it is unclear whether the contemporary and future abiotic and biotic conditions in the species’ historical range will be suitable for reintroduced populations. This project uses species distribution modeling to anticipate the future biogeography of blight-resistant American chestnut, given projected changes in temperature and precipitation over the next century. These models are useful starting places for making reintroduction decisions based on where American chestnut is likely to thrive long-term, and for considering how reintroduced populations might interact with other species in their recipient environments.

A key point of discussion around de-extinction and re-wilding projects centers on what, precisely, these projects mean — what conservationists imagine they are contributing to ecosystems or societies with the resurrection of extirpated or extinct species. Proposed guidelines for selecting de-extinction and reintroduction candidates aim to orient projects towards the production of ecologically meaningful outcomes; however, these guidelines focus on functions that were important historically, not necessarily functions that are missing from and relevant for contemporary ecosystems. 

This project focuses on the tensions that emerge as restoration projects are simultaneously oriented towards the past and the future. Scientists working on and promoting a variety of de-extinction projects understand resurrected species to be chimeras rather than authentic representations of extinct or endangered species; what then, do these projects imagine will be restored, and how does insight from evolutionary ecology bear on their projections? This project combines attention to the goals of American chestnut restoration — is it cultural or ecological? — with attention to the function of American chestnut — what was it and what might it be?

Publications on American chestnut restoration

Barnes, J. C., & Delborne, J. A. (2019). Rethinking restoration targets for American chestnut using species distribution modeling. Biodiversity and Conservation 28: 3199–3220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-019-01814-8
Delborne, J. A., Binder, A. R., Rivers, L., Barnes, J. C., Barnhill-Dilling, S. K., George, D., & Sudweeks, J. (2018). Biotechnology, the American Chestnut Tree, and Public Engagement (Workshop Report). Genetic Engineering and Society Center, North Carolina State University. Available online: http://go.ncsu.edu/ges-chestnut-report
Barnes, J. C. (2018). Engineering conservation: The biogeography, biopolitics, and biotechnology of American chestnut restoration. Doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University; Raleigh, NC. Available online: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.20/35454