With a rapidly growing human global population, predicted to reach 10 billion by 2057, our impact on the planet becomes more and more evident. Our constant drive for growth and development puts a strain on natural ecosystems and the wildlife that lives there.
World Wildlife Day takes place on 3rd March, 2023, marking the 50th anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in which 80 countries came together to fight the illegal trade in wild species. The day aims to celebrate wildlife and raise awareness of the necessity for sustainable ecosystems.
Constantly developing technology is being used to maintain biodiversity, treat sick animals in the wild, and prevent wild fauna from being inadvertently harmed by human activity. The United Nations’ “One Health” approach highlights the interrelated nature of the health of animals, humans, and the planet. Given that 60% of infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic (including Covid-19), it is in our best interest to keep our wild animals healthy.
Big ears, a long trunk, and a deadly disease – striving for herd immunity
In 1990 the first fatal form of the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) was documented. This haemorrhagic disease primarily affects Asian elephants, and some variants have a mortality rate of up to 85%. Fatalities from the virus have been increasing in countries across the species’ native range, with cases also found in breeding programmes.
Therefore, finding a cure is vital to ensure survival of the Asian elephant population. Developing a viable vaccine has been slowed by the lack of suitable animal models and cell culture systems. However, researchers have been able to gain a better understanding of the illness by decoding complete genomes of the virus and through various studies into the immune response of elephants.
A collaboration between the University of Surrey and Chester Zoo has recently resulted in the world’s first pilot study of a vaccine for elephants. The vaccine shows significant promise in stimulating an immune response, with a 20-year-old male being the first elephant to trial it. If the trial shows success in the coming months, it may play a key role in saving the endangered Asian elephant from extinction. They have simultaneously been investigating MVA vaccines and protein vaccines as potential solutions – for the moment, the nature of the lead vaccine is kept under wraps, presumably until they have obtained strong IP protection.
These advances show the positive side of captive breeding programmes, as without zoos it would be near-impossible to trial the vaccine on free-roaming individuals due to the need for constant monitoring. Veterinary medicine will be an important tool in preserving our wild animals.
Dr Tanja Maehr, professor of Veterinary Immunology at the University of Surrey, poignantly said:
“this is a small step for vaccines and a large step for the world’s elephants.”
Being the devil’s advocate
The Tasmanian devil plays an important role in its local ecosystem – primarily being scavengers of dead animals, they help keep rural areas and farmland free of disease, whilst also being fierce enough to fend off feral cats, thus helping Australia’s native small mammal populations recover (Australia’s cats kill an estimated 460 million small mammals every year!). However, since first being observed in 1996, a facial cancer transmissible through biting has decimated the Tasmanian devil population, making it an endangered species. The illness spreads via the direct transfer of cancerous cells, all of which originated from one individual. The transmissibility is enhanced by the lack of genetic diversity of a species which has been confined to a small island over many generations.
Only 9 types of transmissible cancer have ever been identified. Fortunately, in the case of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), there is an interface between human and animal healthcare. Not long after completion of the Human Genome Project, work started on The Tasmanian Devil Genome Project which mapped the genome of the animal and identified the unique karyotype of the tumour cells, which is extremely rearranged in comparison to healthy cells – instead of the usual 14 pairs of chromosomes, DFTD cells contain 13 pairs, 4 of which are unrecognisable compared to healthy cells.
DFTD was originally thought to be a disease with a 100% mortality rate. However, cases began emerging of Tasmanian devils spontaneously going into remission. A study from Washington State University and the University of Tasmania has identified a correlation between expression of the RASL11A gene and tumour regression in the devils. Therefore, RASL11A activation is a potential therapeutic mechanism for treating DFTD in Tasmanian devils. Additionally, given that this gene is known to be under-expressed in human prostate and colon cancer cells, there is opportunity for further research into human oncological treatment through manipulation of expression of this gene and the related rRNA synthesis.
CRISPR is a new and exciting technology with a rapidly growing patent landscape (see our recent blogs on CRISPR) and researchers from UNSW in Sydney have indicated that it may be useful in investigating DFTD cell lines to better understand spontaneous tumour regression, particularly through studying the non-coding RNA which is associated with tumour proliferation. CRISPR has already been proven to activate and deactivate various ncRNA strands, and this study has found various signs in DFTD cells which indicate ncRNA regulation. Therefore, it may be possible to use CRISPR to trigger DFTD regression and save the Tasmanian devil, with implications for use in fighting human cancers.
Better understanding of this disease will undoubtedly help the Tasmanian devil population, but it might just help humans too.
Aquatic conservation… what’s the catch?
Our oceans, rivers and lakes are a lifeline for wildlife. However, fishing and our other human activities can result in significant damage to the aquatic environment and to nearby animals. Positively, there are a number of forward-thinking companies aiming to counter these issues through clever innovation.
The British-founded Hookpod Ltd. is one such company. Their device is simple yet effective – a fishing lure where the hook is concealed until it reaches a depth of 20 metres. The ambient water pressure compresses a piston which unlocks the spring-loaded chamber, thus revealing the barbed hook. The purpose? To prevent seabirds being inadvertently caught in our fishing lines. The patented product shows so much promise (reducing seabird by-catch by 95%!) that the founding brothers were the only UK innovators to make it to the finals of the European Inventor Awards 2021. They even gained testimonial support from Sir David Attenborough!
But it’s not only birds we want to avoid catching in our fishing lines. Given that 25% of sharks are threatened by extinction it is important to reduce their occurrence as by-catch. The SMART Hook, by Shark Defense, is a patent-protected fishing hook which uses electromagnetism and special coatings to deter sharks. The inventors found in their studies that ferromagnets and electropositive metal coatings, particularly lanthanides, elicited a flight response from otherwise calm sharks by disturbing their ampullary organ. Given that most other bony fish lack an ampullary organ, they are not repelled by the SMART Hook, and the fishing yields are unaffected whilst shark by-catch is reduced by 66-94%.
Sustainable hydropower company, Natel, are producing hydro-turbines with innovative designs which allow fish to pass through with more than a 99% survival rate. The progressive slant of the blade reduces the likelihood of a severe strike and directs the fish away from regions where they may get caught. This helps ecosystems thrive, whilst removing the need for efficiency-reducing mesh screens. Their unique turbines can also be retrofitted to existing systems. This presents a technology which helps humans to obtain clean and renewable energy without significantly harming wildlife.
Artificial Intelligence to help us help wildlife
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to be a valuable tool within the field of animal welfare and conservation. AI is a rapidly developing sector, and IP is necessary to protect these developments.
Wild Me has been working to develop an extensive Codex for tracking and monitoring populations of species and individual animals in the wild. Their system uses AI to identify individuals from distinct markers such as a zebra’s strips, a whale shark’s spots, and a dolphin’s fin. They collect data from wildlife cameras as well as photos from everyday people. Collating this information allows conservationists to understand wildlife behaviour, giving us guidance on how best to help these species.
Wildfires have vast impacts on fauna, flora, and humans. They have been getting more severe and more frequent because of climate change. Hence it is unsurprising that numerous organisations are taking advantage of AI to accurately and rapidly track wildfires with greater timeliness and precision. These methods utilise satellites and ground-based cameras and sensors. Exci’s system can detect 95% of wildfires within 5 minutes of ignition, whereas existing human efforts could take up to 90 minutes before detection. Exci utilises proprietary AI deep learning software to distinguish between smoke, fog, and steam. This technology allows a much more rapid response to extinguish the flames before habitats are destroyed.
It is important not only for wildlife itself, but also for human well-being and survival that we look after our planet’s wildlife. A multi-faceted approach is necessary to sustain healthy ecosystems through the utilisation of emerging technology in all sectors: from vaccines to gene editing, and fishing hooks to artificial intelligence. Regardless of which particular industry the innovation comes from, strong IP protection can help protect innovation in this sector and support further research.
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