“De-extinction” could revive long-lost species

BY SEAN SIMONEAU ‘13
Contributing Writer

Imagine passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets flying the skies over the United States. See Tasmanian tigers running through the Australian outback, Caribbean monk seals swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and the dodo waddling around the islands of the Indian Ocean. Can’t picture it? That’s because all of these animals are extinct — for now. In the past few weeks, the phrase “de-extinction” has risen in the scientific community. It asserts that extinction is not just avoidable, but reversible. It sounds impossible, but recent developments in genetic and cellular research have forced the scientific community to re-evaluate its capabilities.

At a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk in Washington, D.C. last week, a team of scientists proposed a wide variety of species to bring back from the grave. They ranged everywhere from the more recent Dusky Seaside Sparrow, which died out in 1990, to more antiquated species, like the giant flightless Moa of New Zealand, which was hunted to extinction by the Maori in the 1400s.

Surprisingly, the technology needed to bring these animals back already exists. Even more shocking is that it has already been utilized. In 2000, the Pyrenean ibex, a goat that lived in the French Pyrenees, died out, but in 2003 scientists were able to create a clone from a live tissue sample taken before the goat’s disappearance. Unfortunately, the clone only lived for seven minutes, but it proved cloning of extinct species could at least be done.

In another TEDTalk, however, it was revealed that scientists in Wales created viable embryos of the gastric-brooding frog, which has been extinct since the early 1980s. Unlike the sample taken from the living ibex, these embryos were made using a frozen frog body. These embryos, too, only lasted a few days, but this development showed that “dead” samples could be used in the de-extinction process.

The Wales experiment opens the door for any number of preserved specimens that could be useful in bringing back extinct species.

It may even be possible to bring back some more ancient species that never made it to the civilized age. Well-preserved carcasses of woolly mammoths and mastodons have been found frozen in Siberian ice, complete with intact hair and tissue, making them viable sources for DNA extraction.

By using an Asian elephant as a surrogate parent, it may be possible to bring these species back for the first time in thousands of years. Other Ice Age animals could be resurrected as well, such as the saber-toothed tiger and giant ground sloth, as well as the ancestors of our modern animals, like the Aurochs, which were an early relative of domestic cattle that lived in Eurasia and Africa until the 1600s.

Unfortunately, Jurassic Park fans won’t see their fantasies brought into the discussion. Any dinosaur DNA samples, even those found in amber-trapped mosquitoes, would be too degraded by over 65 million years of aging.
All these efforts are contingent on three factors: ecological fit, proper genetic samples, and cost.

First, if we are going to bring these extinct species back to life, what are we going to do with them? Will they go exclusively into zoos, or should we repopulate the areas in which they once existed? More importantly, do their habitats still exist in the same manner as in the time they went extinct? Many species in the 19th and 20th centuries went extinct due to rapid habitat change, so if we brought them back, there is no guarantee they would fare any better in today’s world.

Second, the quality of the genetic material has to be decent enough to produce a healthy specimen. Even when properly preserved, the tissues of extinct animals are subject to degradation. If negative mutations were present in the preserved DNA, these will be passed on to the clones.

Third, the cost of resurrecting an extinct species can be prohibitively high, especially for larger animals. However, whatever cost a zoo or other organization would pay could be recouped by the public’s desire to see such species for the first time in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. People from all over the world would make pilgrimages to be the first hominids to see a woolly mammoth or saber-toothed cat since the Neanderthals.

The biggest question that remains, though: should we bother to bring back these animals at all?

We cannot predict the effects they will have on our world, and in the case of ancient species, we do not know for what reason they went extinct. If we can suddenly bring extinct species back to life, will that lessen the importance of our current wildlife conservation? Why bother with extinct species when there are so many living ones that need our help now?

These are the questions that will plague the de-extinction debate, but hopefully, as the technology develops, they will be resolved by the time the first extinct species re-emerges from oblivion.

Questions? Email Sean at ssimonea@fandm.edu.

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