2019’s sure been a year. For South Africa, that means extreme highs and depressing lows, but one things for sure, the country didn’t stop…
Revive & Restore is a scientific project that not only aims to protect endangered animals from extinction, but is also actively trying to resurrect extinct species by means of cloning and genetic engineering. This process is referred to as resurrection biology or de-extinction.
The project is run by the California-based research institute, The Long Now Foundation, which was established in “01996”. The zero is added to solve something known as the “deca-millenium bug” (who are these people?).
Among the species they intend to resurrect are the woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger and the passenger pigeon.
In their latest attempt they managed to “birth” a Pyrenean ibex (a Spanish wild goat that became extinct in January 2000). Sadly, the human-brewed Ibex only survived for ten minutes, after which its lung collapsed because deformation.
Beyond Revive & Restore, the team is engaged in various other projects such as the equally ambitious “Rosetta Project” in which they aim to preserve 1500 languages by microscopically etching them on a nickel disk that can fit in the palm of your hand.
Judging by the above-mentioned, I think it’s safe to say that The Long Now Foundation might be one of the most interesting and controversial institutions I’ve encountered. But let’s get back to the topic at hand, de-extinction.
How does de-extinction work?
The de-extinction process could take on various forms depending on how long the species in question has been extinct and the quality of biological data the scientist have to work with, as DNA degrades over time (although it is said to remain intact for a staggering 6.8 million years).
The three methods in question are “nuclear transference” (more commonly known as cloning), genetic engineering and back breeding.
It is also not only just the process itself that has to be considered, but the available wild habitats in which these animals can be introduced.
Will the current state of the atmosphere support their ancient lungs? Will the habitat provide the conditions, such as climate and nutrition, for the animals to survive? These are but a few of many questions that arise when considering the act of de-extinction.
In the case of recently extinct animals such as the Pyrenean ibex (aka bucardo), cloning was the preferred method of resurrection as scientists still had a healthy dose of living cells to tinker with.
By using the frozen cells collected from the last living bucardo, a female named Celia, scientists were able to grow a new embryo via cloning. This was done by extracting the nuclei from the living cells and injecting them into goat eggs, which have been stripped of their own DNA. These eggs are then planted into living goat specimens, who will then act as the surrogate birth mother for the Bucardo clone.
Trying to resurrect extinct species by means of cloning and genetic engineering is known as de-extinction
In nearly sixty attempts, only seven of the surrogate mothers became pregnant, of which only one managed to give birth. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the bucardo clone only lived for about ten minutes and then died of suffocation due its deformed lungs.
Then there is genetic engineering, aimed at species that have long been extinct and only provide very partial DNA samples. This is the latest and most cutting edge method of de-extinction.
In this method scientists can genetically reconstruct a genome by acquiring broken genetic material from horns, hair, fur or feathers. After sequencing and arranging the broken DNA, it is then compared to the extinct animal’s closest living relative. In the case of the passenger pigeon, the common pigeon (or rock dove) is the closest living relative.
After these DNA samples are compared and the missing sectors identified, the scientists then start constructing the new DNA strand by “cutting and pasting” together the required bits. When this process is concluded, you will now (hopefully) have the cells necessary to attempt method one, cloning.
Finally, there is back breeding, probably the most ancient and drawn out form of de-extinction. In back breeding, researchers identify the ancestral genes within existing animals and calculate which breeding process will lead to the closest semblance of the extinct species.
Currently, the European “TaurOs Project” is using this method to restore the aurochs, a cattle-like creature that once roamed in parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is also known as the ancestor of all domestic cattle.
Considering the consequences
There are many facets we need to take into account when considering the consequences of de-extinction. As you might have guessed, resurrection biology is quite a controversial subject that has led to many heated debates, with both sides making compelling arguments.
One of the main issues being discussed is the question of morality. Is it our place to perform such experiments? Why do we aim to accomplish this? Should we not learn from our previous mistakes rather than trying to correct them?
Then there are the scientific questions. Would it be better to focus our efforts on preserving currently living but endangered species? What would the result of such an accomplishment be and what rippling consequences can we expect?
‘You’re scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should’ – Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
All valid questions, but none leads to a single, definitive answer. These are uncharted waters and the eventual outcome can, for now, only be speculated.
The argument for de-extinction
One of the most reoccurring arguments for de-extinction is to “right the wrongs of our past”. Many of the animals that have gone extinct have been due to human intervention and those who are in favour of de-extinction consider it our moral obligation to resurrect them.
“The fact is, humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last ten thousand years. We have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage,” says Steart Brand, one of the founding members of The Long Now Foundation.
Many of these animals played a large role in biodiversity and took up a sensitive place in their respective eco-systems. One of the main scientific reasons these scientists are so intent on saving endangered species is because of their natural roles.
This same reasoning is applied to the de-extinciton debate and many scientists are looking to restore diminished ecosystems by reviving these vanished animals.
To give one example, the Woolly mammoth played a big role in a region known as the “mammoth steppe”, once the most prominent biome located on the planet. Their actions helped sustain the existence of these vast grasslands and, with their extinction, much of this area has turned into a frozen, lifeless tundra.
Then there is also the fact that by closely studying these genes, scientists are gaining much valuable insight into why these specific species went extinct while their closest living relatives managed to survive. This information, in turn, will also prove crucial when looking to protect the existence of currently endangered species.
The argument against de-extinction
There are many concerns that arise when debating the consequences of de-extinction. Firstly, one must consider what affect a resurrected species will have on the current ecosystem.
As amazing as the feat will be, will the landscape they are reintroduced in provide the habitat for this species to thrive in? With the astonishingly rapid expansion of human civilisation and deforestation, we have severely altered the surrounding natural habitats.
“Since the dawn of human industry, the leading cause of extinctions has been loss of habitat — animals finding their homes destroyed to the point at which their survival is no longer possible. Habitat fragmentation will remain the sole cause of species extinction and sadly it’s increasing at a staggering rate,” writes Dr Josa C. Depre, a prominent environmentalist and botanical scientist.
With the astonishingly rapid expansion of human civilisation and deforestation, we have severely altered the surrounding natural habitats
Dr Richard P. Reading, a specialist in conservation biology, states that “when 90% of the habitat is eliminated, 50% of the species will be lost. Selection of the lost species, however is not random. The larger, wide-ranging species, such as large carnivores, suffer first. Because those groups often contribute to healthy ecosystem processes, a wave of secondary losses may follow their decline”.
It is clear that an ecosystem is a very sensitive entity and, when fiddling with even the tiniest bit, it can cause rippling changes through said ecosystem.
I can also not help but feel that, if proven successful, we are creating an excuse not to take heed of our actions and effects on the environment. By being able to tailor the world around us, one can then argue that we no longer have to protect a certain habitat in order to save an endangered species, because we can now just “brew up” a few new ones.
Personally, I find it very hard to come to my own conclusion. I must admit, it would be breathtaking to see a woolly mammoth once again roam across the frozen tundra, or to witness a Tasmanian tiger sprint through the Australian grasslands.
But I can’t suppress the feeling that we might be meddling with things that are still beyond our understanding. Admittedly, my knowledge of these affairs is quite lacking and my opinions therefore quite uninformed.
Still, humans have a knack for challenging notions of the impossible and are usually quite eager to reach their goals, sometimes without properly considering what effects these actions could have. Life is an astoundingly complex and multifarious thing and I think it would be wise to remind ourselves that we have probably barely scratched the surface of all its intricacies.
What do you think? Is de-extinction the way forward or do you we need to look at other alternatives? Let us know in the comments below.