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The Endangered Species Rehabilitation Project with Oliver Ryder
We have the absolute pleasure of hosting Oliver. Oliver, welcome to the show and please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Oliver Ryder. I’m Director of Conservation Genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The hints that were laid down in the previous episode are directed toward my activities in overseeing what’s called the frozen zoo. It’s a precious and irreplaceable collection that is being added to on a regular basis by an amazing team of scientists that I work with. This collection consists of living cells from approximately 10,000 vertebrate animals, animals with backbones, that comprise about a thousand species, so we have mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, couple of fish. Somewhere around at least 200 of these are in the endangered species categories. We have cells from species that are critically endangered. We have cells from a species that’s extinct. There was a bird that was discovered in Hawaii on 1978, and then about ten years ago, the last one died. Working with our pathologists who did a post-mortem exam on this last bird, we had a chance to collect samples that allowed us to propagate and freeze living cells of the Po’ouli. We had the uncanny experience of looking at cells grow and divide and do the amazing things that cells can do, including as they divide, you can visualize their chromosomes. We were the first people to visualize the chromosomes of the Po’ouli. My team did this work and called me into the microscope and I was speechless.
You are literally taking cells from now extinct animals and they’re still alive and reproducing. As your team continues to do its work, you’ll eventually be able to repopulate these animals into a certain environments or ecosystems. Is that right?
That’s a lofty goal and there’s a lot of science that lies between what we’re doing and that possibility. People ask me, “What can you do with the cells of the Po’ouli?” I say, “That’s a challenge because we have the cells of one bird. There’s no way we can reach easily that we could see that you could reestablish a species from a single individual, at least in any sense of the way they exist in nature.” One thing is clear, as species decline, the opportunity to collect and bank these samples becomes harder and less probable. The most important thing we can do in our time is bank more of this material, foster the development of more frozen zoos, expand the effort that we have here but for this to work, we need to have a network of frozen zoos across the globe in different countries, in regions that are rich and biological diversity, and expand the science of how to grow cells.
Oliver, this is incredible what you and your team are doing. It seems that with the investment currently taking place into the world of genetics that it’s more an eventuality that we’ll be able to do many of these things. The timeline might shift depending on grants and government investment and so on, but it might take twenty, 30 years or it might take 50, 60 years, but we’re going to eventually figure out how to do this because of hard work of teams like yours. Is there anything to suggest that it’s impossible?
I’m conservative in that assessment. When I was a boy, I was reading about how we were all going to be flying around in personalized hovercraft. Some of the technical limitations of that weren’t appreciated, but I do want to set a hopeful trajectory. We know that cells are the fundamental unit of life. Every organism, all life begins or lives its entire life as a single cell. Only a cell can make a cell, but if we can advance our understanding of how cells work, and we know a lot about how cells work, but we’re far from knowing everything about how they work in order to pull off what you’re suggesting, but it may be possible in the future to do things that seem difficult now or impossible. What’s going to be is what we have saved for the future to work on and the best access we can provide for those in the future is going to be those living cells. We think those can be used to restore species that have been critically endangered, that have had their gene pools depleted, that have come to the brink of extinction or crossed it if we have banked living material.
What about the Jurassic Park idea? Do we have dyno DNA? Assuming that we get over the technical aspects that you’ve discussed, is it possible? Is it probable?
There’s some deal breaking limitations. One is the sheer ability for the chemical DNA to survive in the environment. A lot of work has been done since the idea of Jurassic Park that shows that the period of time that a DNA molecule would have to be preserved 200 million years is too long. DNA decays very rapidly, quickly and it doesn’t seem that it’s going to be possible to get that material. All of the experiments to look in insects, in amber, none of them have borne any result that’s been verified that you can preserve this material. I could get into a technical deal about how you could try to reconstruct the common ancestor, but also how you’re going to do that very imperfectly. It may be possible to infer what some dinosaur characteristics were, to insert those into cells, but it’s highly improbable you’re going to bring back any of these animals and their world is essentially gone.
The idea about bringing things back and having that command, the natural processes of evolution is something that humankind is going to embrace. The enormous question for humanity, “How are we going to use that knowledge? What will we use it for? How will we value nature? Will we use this information and these capabilities to preserve a natural world like we inherited, or will we find it more convenient, expedient, pleasurable, whatever, to make a world that conforms to our liking?” That’s the thing that younger people have to think about because that’s the world they and their children are going to inherit.
I’m very curious about the application and use of DNA for consumers. There was the story of Barbara Streisand cloning her dog twice. Did you come across this?
I heard that she had two clones of a dog that she loved.
The fact that it’s now becoming a consumer product to clone an animal is fascinating. Yes, it’s expensive, but so is genetic sequencing twenty years ago and now you can get your full sequence for $500 or a couple of grand. Do you think that this is something we’re going to be seeing more of people not wanting to let go their pets and sequencing their DNA then cloning them so that they don’t have to say goodbye?
I do, Jon. The critical step is that they have to bank cells from the animal they want to clone, but I believe that people will do that more. People spend an enormous money on the what’s called the companion animal industry. Polo ponies are being cloned now, so as the cost decreases for this and as the technology improves, people will want to do that. At some point, people will say like, “I loved this clone, but I wish it had red hair instead of brown hair.” Then they’ll be able to say, “This dog was pretty nice, but it was sometimes a little aggressive. I’d rather have a copy that was less aggressive,” and people will be able to engineer that.
It’s pretty clear that, especially with the announcement that Barbara Streisand made, people are going to get more and more interested in consumer cloning of their pets, but what you’re doing is very different in terms of trying to save species and ensure biodiversity. What successes have you seen so far?
Two endangered species have been cloned from the frozen zoo. They’re both relatives of cattle. They are wild species of cattle that are endangered now. There are hopeful efforts with this technology. One of the most challenging project we got involved in, but one that if we can make progress on it is most hopeful for future conservation efforts is a project to save a form of rhinoceros that has only three individuals left. It’s functionally extinct. They’re not going to be able to reproduce naturally and even if advanced reproductive technologies were developed to produce offspring from these three living individuals, it’s a male with his daughter and his granddaughter, so it’s not a sufficient size population to rescue a species. Over the years we have saved cell cultures, viable cells from twelve northern white rhinoceros. This is the species that’s disappearing. It’s actually a subspecies.
This is the unique form of rhino that’s disappearing, and we’ve shown with colleagues that the cells in the frozen zoo can be reprogrammed, can be transformed to produce what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, cells that can make any cell in the body. We have a hopeful trajectory to use these cells to make stem cells and to have the stem cells in the laboratory produced eggs and sperm that could then be used to make embryos by in vitro fertilization. That could then be cultured and transfer it into a related form of rhinoceros into females of southern white rhinos who would then gestate this embryo and give birth to a northern white rhinoceros whose parents were cells. This may sound fantastic, but it’s been done in the laboratory mouse. All of the steps I said have been accomplished.
We would like to use this technology to prevent the otherwise certain extinction of the northern white rhinoceros. There’s an international effort to do this. San Diego Zoo Global has made an enormous commitment to trying to accomplish this. We’ve brought young female white rhinos from Africa to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to be the surrogates. We are developing the technologies for the reproductive steps, my colleagues, an amazing team of people have made stem cells from multiple individuals of northern white rhinos. We’re characterizing those, following a roadmap that was laid down by researchers who studied the mouse and seeing how similar the steps for the development of the rhinoceros are. It’s a big challenge, but it’s the only way to prevent the extinction of this unique form of rhinoceros. I’m pleased to be part of an organization that’s taking a risk like this, that’s taking seriously their mission to lead the fight to end extinction, to invest in this risky but hopeful enterprise
That’s absolutely incredible. Oliver, the impact that proving out this process could have on maintaining a healthy ecosystem and undoing a lot of the damage that we’ve done to everything from poaching to deforestation is tremendous. If people wanted to find out more or read up about this, where could they see some material?
Go to Institute.SanDiegoZoo.org. You can follow links to our projects there.
If they want to find out more about you, are you on Twitter, Instagram?
I’m on Twitter but I don’t tweet that much. I’m @FrozenZoo. Another great place to look is EndExtinction.org to find out about activities that we’re engaging in for the northern white rhino and other species to prevent extinctions.
I know that everybody here at Influencers and everybody in the audience is hoping that you’re able to pull this off because it would have a huge impact on the planet. We also hope that you figure out, although that’s not your work, but have somebody figures out how to fix the DNA issue with dinosaurs so that we could have triceratops running around. Thank you so much for all of your efforts and for joining us. It’s been a real treat.
Thank you, Jon.
About Oliver Ryder
Anonymous Guest Interview
For my absolute favorite part, the anonymous interview. We have an absolutely extraordinary person with us. Rob, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
Let’s give people a little bit of background so they can start trying to figure out who you are. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Jersey. First, in the area of Newark, New Jersey until I was about six years old, then I moved to Asbury Park. After that, I moved to a town called Wanamassa, which is incredibly famous. That’s about three miles outside of Asbury Park.
You eventually made your way out to Los Angeles, is that right?
I had a bizarre calling when I was about five years old. I saw all these cartoons and things about, “California, here we come.” When I was five years old, somebody asked me what I was going to do. I said, “I’m moving to California,” not knowing that much about it. Disneyland was in California, which sounded interesting. As soon as I could find a way to get out of New Jersey, I did, not that anything’s wrong in New Jersey. I applied to a school in Santa Barbara knowing I would stay in California.
You’ve done some pretty incredible work in your industry. Was there a specific incident or a teacher that really inspired you to go into entertainment?
No, not really. I had an innate fascination with movies not knowing anything about how they were made or done or who did what or that they were jobs there. When you live in a little place in New Jersey, they people do that stuff, so I didn’t have any other outwardly connection to it. I remember my first movie was Pinocchio and I was completely fascinated as it’s the first time I’ve seen color entertainment. We have black and white TVs back then. This was the first time I saw color, but I was fascinated with the projection beam. Where did that come from? How did that go from that thing in the back to the screen, making this big giant color picture? There was something about it and I was wanting to find out about it. People knew that I love movies so much, not that they knew anyway, but they didn’t want to tell me because they thought it would ruin the movie for me if I knew how they were made, but I was completely fascinated by how they do that.
When I was about sixteen years old, I couldn’t get in to see a movie called Fritz the Cat. It was the first X-rated cartoon. I was young looking to get into that movie and right around the corner was The Godfather. I went with all my friends and everybody got into the movie except for me, I was the only one that was not allowed in. I have nothing to do, so I went to the other movie that was around, which was The Godfather and I was completely entranced. For the first time, I saw it as an art form and when I don’t know who does what where, but I want to do that. I watched movies several times just to see the names at the end of it to see if I could get a clue who did what since they had some odd names and titles and things like that. Then I read a book called Memo from David O. Selznick, who’s a megalomaniac producer that I’ve patterned myself after ever since.
I love that you accidentally saw one of the most iconic movies in history and that inspired everything.
I’m Italian-American. I started to then identify with that. There’s something about Francis Coppola and it’s a movie about Italians, not necessarily in a favorable light, but to me was favorable. It was like, “I would like to do that to my enemies. Who wouldn’t?” There’s something about it that everything clicked, and I became completely fascinated. I was a lifelong fan of Francis Coppola and the cinematographer, Gordon Willis, who I found the first time I saw that film making was art. It was photography. I recognized that it wasn’t just pictures of actors. It was something about the way it was filmed. It was so bizarre that I had an epiphany that night when all my friends went and saw an X-rated cartoon and I was like, “I found my lifelong calling.”
Is there an accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
With IMDB, it’s tough because you could literally say the name of the movie and the position that you’ve held and then everybody would know who you are, but if we could hint towards something, I can do the early ones, which even my mom doesn’t know that I did.
Like Star Trek: The Next Generation?
I would say prior to Star Trek: The Next Generation. This will sound bizarre, especially if you went and looked it up and saw it. I was doing TV commercials and I always wanted to do films. Films was the great thing out there that you aspire to and when I was starting out, if you did commercials, it was so far removed from doing film. It wasn’t like it is today where you can switch back and forth or in England where Ridley Scott can do a commercial and do a documentary and then do a film and do a commercial. There’s no stigma attached to it whatsoever. In fact, it’s quite encouraged, but back then, they were as far and wide gap between doing TV commercials. I always wanted to film anything I could.
I studied cinematography. I always want to do anything I could to photograph anything or be associated with it. A little teeny company was commissioned to do the Rocky IV exploding gloves at the tack of a trailer that they were making. They asked me to photograph it and I was so excited because for the first time, I could go to a movie and see something I did on a big screen, even though it was eight to twelve frames long. I did this thing and did the best I could and turned out okay. I made these gloves out of plaster of Paris, had them painted to look like the real gloves, and when the two boxers put their hands together, it then jump cuts to these plaster gloves blowing up, then out of the smoke comes the Rocky IV logo. I went to the biggest theater in Westwood to watch trailers, to watch my eight frames of glory. I was beaming with pride because I finally broke into features.
It’s so fun, especially if you had peaked, then it would be a bit of a sad story.
If that was my only highlight, that would be pathetic. It was a huge thrill. I’ve got to have something that I did on a major screen and it’s never lost that fascination even today.
Who directed it?
Neil Jordan directed it. I studied cinematography and that’s not all I do. I do other things. I was doing something on set where I was directing second unit and the cameraman was Philippe Rousselot. He would cover the main set, which is his, the first unit. Then he would come over to my set and light my set. Even though I’m a cameraman, he insisted only he can do it, which is a brilliant Academy Award winning cinematographer.
Good point because you have none of those awards. How many do you have?
Three, I lost one.
You lost it? You literally can’t find it?
No, I was nominated four times, but I lost one.
One of the fun fact about the Academy Award is that if you ever are desperate for money, the Academy will buy it back from you for the sum total of it. Is it a dollar? Is that what it is?
Apparently, you can sell it back to the Academy for a dollar and the Academy says that you don’t own it. It can’t be sold. A famous actor was given one at the cost of a half a million dollars, but he had to give it back to the Academy for a dollar. It has intrinsically more value than $3 to me. The story was we were shooting in London. His mom took ill and he had to leave. It meant that my unit was shut down and I had hand inserts to do Tom Cruise playing the piano and other stuff. There were small things in it and I was doing other shots in the movie that were huge and big second unit stuff. I said, “Here’s the deal. I will finish the day because we already paid for it and if Philippe doesn’t like what I did, then we will overshoot it all because there’s no harm no foul. If I shut down now, I have to shoot it all again anyway, so it doesn’t matter and just let me do it.” I figured out how he lit things and did stuff and I shot these little hands.
One of my proudest moments in the movie is that I was able to photograph something more than eight frames long that ended up in a big movie. I was just as proud of that as a shot that I’ve done that might have caused quite a bit more than that. They’re pricey and, but I get a big charge out of that and still I was making a real for myself for some other thing. I came across that and I stopped and watched my little hand insert on my first one in a major movie. I’m as proud of that as some of the things that people would be shocked that I’d be proud of that more than some of the other things I’ve done.
Just so people have a sense of what you look like, who would play in a movie?
I would say somebody who looked like Colin Firth looking person.
Was there a moment or experience that made you feel like you had arrived to some degree or at least had the respect of your peers and so on?
It’s not like I don’t have a high opinion of myself, but I just don’t have that outsider’s view of whatever I do and what that means to them. Very early on in my career, I did something that you like, Star Trek. I was doing my first feature. I came from doing commercials, very huge gap to do features. Then if you did TV, a smaller gap but it’s still a gap of television to do feature. I have the holy grail was doing a film. I’ve got my first film, which was Interview the Vampire. I did Star Trek: The Next Generation and I won a couple of Emmys based on that, but I didn’t think that highly of it.
I certainly know what the behind-the-scenes are like. I’m a knucklehead from New Jersey guessing what laser beams look like coming out of a ship that people then write about and think there was some enormous amount of thought and the cleverness going. It’s like, “What color didn’t we use today? Yellow. Make the beam yellow.” From that moment on, that’s the beam that comes out of this part of the ship was yellow. It was one of those things where it seems like it’s grander than it is and you’re just trying to come up with something, so I didn’t think that highly of even the work or the television work and all that stuff. I was on the phone call with somebody from England who liked the show apparently and liked it a lot more than I did. The guy was impressed. Somebody on the phone was like, “He’s so excited to talk to you.” I’m like, “Why?” I didn’t realize why until he was a big fan of that. Somehow, seeing my name at the end of the thing associated with the work that apparently he liked was the way I felt when I saw Francis Coppola’s name or Gordon Willis’ name, where it’s like I would fall over in a dead faint to me.
Gordon Willis, who’s the cinematographer of The Godfather and All the President’s Men. He had the same feeling I had about other people. It was the first time it was like, “Maybe that is impressive.” That happened and then a couple times in my career, when I was being not humble about what I was doing but understanding what I was doing and not seeing it in a grander light. I did another film where my job on it as far as I was concerned is not to embarrass myself and not to be the lowest point of the movie. It’s hard because you take over a portion of the film that at some point become center stage. If you fell down on the job, it would be very noticeable that the movie took a dip in quality. It was my second film and I was trying to keep my head above water. The company I was with, they had publicists and the publicist got people from other magazines. There’s a guy from American Cinematographer Magazine that I was very impressed with as I went to film school with reading all that.
This guy came over and I showed him the reel, because what else am I going to show him? He got moved by it and I was like, “Are you all right?” He got a little bit emotional about the imagery that he was seeing and put it in a much grander light than me not embarrassing myself. Good things happen because of that particular film. I’ve got a lot of notoriety based on that film where at one point, if you told me it was pure shit, I would have believed you, but then yet other people were very taken with the work and what it meant and inferring more things in it than I possibly could. So that was another time where I was like, “Maybe that is impressive.”
To give people a bit of a hint about who you are, you’re known for doing a good impersonation of someone. Who is it that you’ve worked with quite a bit that you can impersonate well?
I’ve been told I impersonate well Martin Scorsese. I worked with Marty in about six movies. I had a chance to observe him up close and get his very distinctive rhythm.
Listeners, you have between now and next episode to figure out who Rob is. If you do, you could win an invitation to Mirror, The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.