Jurassic Park, both the film and the book, sparked our imagination with the possibility of seeing dinosaurs walk the earth once more. Sadly, however, this dream could never be realized as “no viable cells or nuclei can survive 65 million years,” according to popular science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer in his post on National Geographic where he answered de-extinction questions. The same thoughts are also echoed by biologist Beth Shapiro in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine about resurrecting extinct species. She said, “The limit of DNA survival, which we’d need for de-extinction, is probably around one million years or less. Dinosaurs had been gone for a very long time by then.”
So while the dream of bringing back dinosaurs cannot be a reality, are there other extinct species that we can resurrect? Yes, and it has been done – but just not successfully.
In 2009, a team of scientists attempted – and successfully – cloned a bucardo (or Pyrenean ibex) which is a subspecies of Spanish ibex which was declared extinct in 2000. The study was published in the journal Theriogenology where it was detailed that frozen skin taken from a bucardo back in 2003 was used. Sadly though, the newborn ibex died shortly after birth due to physical defects in its lungs.
One of the latest to flirt with cloning extinct animals are a team of scientists attempting to bring back the wooly mammoth which disappeared from the face of the earth about four thousand years ago. The scientists have, according to a write up in the The Washington Post, “deciphered the genetic blueprint that may offer a key to bringing it back.” However, scientists also admitted that the version that could be brought back is more of a hybrid than an actual clone.
Harvard geneticist George Church announced in March 2015 that his team was able to successfully splice mammoth DNA into an Asian elephant genome. If the team does succeed in creating a resulting creature, it won’t be a perfect copy of the shaggy beast that used to roam the earth. But Russian scientist Sergey Zimov believes that introducing such an animal allows for the re-population of the Siberian tundra.
Zimov is trying to re-create a 10,000-year-old pasture ecosystem in a remote wildlife refuge he called “Pleistocene Park.” Here, he is attempting to reconstitute the area with reindeer, bison, wolves and the mammoth. Zimov believes that bringing back mammoths to the tundra can help revive ancient grassland. This would then prevent the melting of Siberia’s permafrost, which is an event that could speed up climate change through the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
While the idea of bringing back extinct animals is romantic, not everyone is in agreement. It’s like the statement posed by Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” So, is it truly necessary to bring back species that have long passed or should they remain extinct? Here’s a look at the arguments for and against cloning extinct animals.
List of Pros of Cloning Extinct Animals
1. They could have a positive impact on the environment.
As mentioned earlier, Russian scientist Sergey Zimov is all for bringing back the wooly mammoth to prevent the melting of Siberia’s permafrost so as not to hasten climate change. These sentiments are also echoed by Beth Shapiro, who wrote a book called How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. When asked which extinct animal would she most like to bring back to life, she said “The best choice would be an animal that could not only inspire people to be interested in science and technology but that also would have a net positive impact on the environment. In my mind, the mammoth is a great choice for both of these reasons.”
In response to which extinct animal would be the most fun to bring back, Shapiro answered the dodo. For her, “If the dodo were to be brought back, it could be restored to protected habitats on [the island nation of] Mauritius, where people could go to observe dodos in their native habitat.”
2. They would help us understand them better.
Questions such as “What made species that have gone extinct vulnerable to such a fate” and “How are they different from their closest surviving relatives” can be answered if we have a living specimen.
3. They can help us protect species that are close to extinction.
Specifically, the techniques used in bringing back an extinct animal to life can be applied to living species that are close to extinction. Also, animals with a small population can have their genetic variability restored. Lastly, if a species has a certain predisposition to getting killed off, that can be addressed with an adjustment through cloning.
Tasmanian devils, for instance, have transmissible cancer on their faces and it’s thought to be because of a single gene. What if that gene can be taken care of in the subsequent generations that would be released in the wild? Immune animals won’t transmit it and will eventually result in the entire population being immune.
4. It makes us feel better for driving most of these species into extinction.
We do things to the world we live in without thinking of the consequences. We are responsible for climate change, and we are also – in part – responsible for the number of animals that have gone extinct over the years. Being able to bring a species that we drove off the face of the earth brings enormous joy, and it does invoke awe and wonder to see them walking the earth once more.
List of Cons of Cloning Extinct Animals
1. It is playing God.
In the film Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm had an argument with John Hammond where he pointed out that dinosaurs “…isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation, or the building of a dam. Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.”
A similar sentiment was echoed in a question directed at Carl Zimmer regarding de-extinction – the answers of which were published in a National Geographic article. It went: “If 99% of all living things are extinct, why are we so consumed with playing God? Things come, things go, that’s it.”
Zimmer provided a long answer which can be summed up as “We’re not playing God. We’re coming to terms with out own powers, as well as the unexpected results of our actions.”
The question of who decides which species should be brought back to life and which should remain gone is something that won’t go away.
2. We will be bringing back a species into an environment totally different from the one they lived in.
“Where do we put them?” seems to be the question most raised when talking about raising animals from the dead. Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University Stuart Pimm made his arguments against species revival in a National Geographic article.
In the article, Pimm had this to say: “A resurrected Pyrenean ibex will need a safe home, not just its food plants. Those of us who attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild have one question at the top of our list: Where do we put them? Hunters ate this wild goat to extinction. Reintroduce a resurrected ibex to the area where it belongs and it will become the most expensive cabrito ever eaten.”
Pimm is much more interested in the conservation of species that are still alive, and believes that should take precedence.
3. It puts the conservation of currently endangered species way back.
Pimm makes a great point about being against reclaiming extinct species in his National Geographic article: “There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.”
The technology we have today allows us to do lots of things without thinking about its effects. We continually ruin our forests without stopping to wonder about how that affects birds and other creatures that call the place home. Also, why care now when we can extract DNA later and bring them back to life should they cease to exist?
It is quite seductive to hear about efforts to bring long dead animals back to life, but others also want to ensure that those who are currently endangered still have a shot. As Zimmer put it in his article on de-extinction, “When a species goes extinct, it can leave a hole. Its ecosystem may suffer because the species can no longer carry out some important task, such as pollinating plants or filtering water.”
In other words, those who are against raising the long dead would much rather have resources spent on making sure that those still living (and endangered) still have a fighting chance to exist.
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5 Reasons to Bring Back Extinct Animals (And 5 Reasons Not To)
By Breanna Draxler | April 4, 2013 1:36 pm
Mammoth statue in Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona, Spain. Image courtesy of Philip Lange/Shutterstock
Would you like to see a real, live wooly mammoth? Or how about a Tasmanian tiger in the flesh? Scientists have already finagled a few ways to resurrect extinct species from their evolutionary graves. Even muckier than the scientific methods themselves, though, are the social, ethical and legal ramifications of so-called de-extinction.
In Science today, two Stanford researchers tackle this tricky topic to parse out exactly what we have to gain and lose from de-extinction technologies. Using the passenger pigeon as a thought experiment, another paper in the same issue looks at the fears and excitement of leaders in the field of genomics.
There are three main ways of bringing back extinct species, according to the Stanford researchers: backbreeding, genetic engineering, and cloning. With backbreeding, scientists use a living species that is genetically similar to the extinct species, and selectively breed it for the traits of the now-extinct species. Genetic engineering depends on existing DNA samples of the extinct species; scientists could bring them back to life by targeting and replacing specific genomic sequences in a closely-related living species. Finally, if viable cell nuclei from the extinct species are available, it can be cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer—a tested but as-of-yet unsuccessful method for extinct species.
Based on the current state of the science, the Stanford researchers distill de-extinction down to five pros and five cons:
- Scientific knowledge: De-extinction could offer insights into evolution and natural resources that are currently unavailable to us.
- Technological advancement: De-extinction could be a big step forward for genetic engineering.
- Environmental benefits: Threatened or damaged ecosystems could be restored with the help of certain now-extinct species.
- Justice: If people pushed plant and animals species into extinction, perhaps we owe it to these species to try and bring them back.
- Wonder: How cool would it be to see extinct species alive and kicking again?
- Animal welfare: People could be exploiting animals for solely human purposes, and may cause individuals of the de-extinct species harm.
- Health: Species could carry retroviruses or pathogens when brought back to life.
- Environment: De-extinct species would be alien and potentially invasive; their habitats and food sources have changed, so their roles in these changed ecosystems could be too.
- Political: De-extinction may change priorities in other fields of science, such as medical research and the conservation of currently endangered species.
- Moral: Is de-extinction playing god, or just plain wrong? It may also have unforeseen consequences.
If an extinct animal were brought back to life in the lab, the authors point out that it would still lack many of a species’ key characteristics, such as epigenetics, environment and social groups. Plus it would bring along with it a number of complicated legalities relating to the Endangered Species Act and patent laws. And that doesn’t even get into the messy world of if and how such resurrections should be regulated.
In the end, both papers seem to draw open-ended conclusions. But if the practice is really as inevitable as it seems, the authors say the most interesting part will be seeing how humanity reacts.
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