Should We Revive Extinct Species?

Should We Revive Extinct Species?

 

Like many others, I’m a fan of TED Talks and a Feb 2013 talk by Stuart Brand titled “The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready?” has caught much of the world off guard.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this topic, biotech is currently accelerating four times faster than digital technology, and the revival of extinct species is not only becoming possible, but is imminent. Stewart Brand plans to bring many extinct species back and restore them to the wild with his Revive and Restore Foundation.

Brand is well aware of the moral and ethical controversies surrounding this topic – the can-we-should-we debate – but the issues go far beyond the ethics of de-extinction. What he is proposing is an “unleashing” of human reengineered species that only closely approximate those who have become extinct.

So how long will it be before we see a revived version of the passenger pigeon (extinct in 1914), the Tasmanian tiger (extinct in 1936), and the woolly mammoth (extinct over 3,000 years ago) roaming the earth again?

It will probably come as a surprise to most to learn that the first revival of an extinct species has already occurred. It happened in 2003 when scientists cloned a bucardo, an Iberian wild goat, that had gone extinct three years earlier, by inserting its DNA (which they got from frozen bucardo skin) into the eggs of an existing goat. The cloned bucardo was born, but then died just ten minutes later.

To put this into perspective, the Wright Brother’s first flight only lasted 12 seconds.

Perhaps the most controversial comment made by Brand during his talk was, “the results won't be perfect but nature isn't perfect, either.”

So we will only be creating close proximities to existing species, effectively new forms of life. Here are a few thoughts on what comes next.

 

Stuart Brand - “The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready?”

Should cloning be used for de-extinction?

In its earliest form, de-extinction will involve cloning DNA, which means it will raise a number of ethical questions, like “Should we be playing God?”

According to Brand’s Revive and Restore Foundation, there are four primary reasons for reviving extinct species:

  1. To preserve biodiversity and genetic diversity.
  2. To undo harm that humans have caused in the past.
  3. To restore diminished ecosystems.
  4. To advance the science of preventing extinctions.

To be sure, humans have played a role in the extinction of many species, but not all of them. With some, humans had very little to do with their disappearance.

So should we only focus on species where human played a role in their extinction? The unanswered questions go far beyond that.

As an example, if California condors go extinct, it’s unclear if they could ever be brought back fully, because young condors rely on their parents for training.

Will a revived species learn to adapt to its new environment? Will they be able to reproduce in sufficient number to ever be fully viable? Will the genetic differences be too great for them to survive, or will those differences make them ultra-adaptable where they will thrive to the point of becoming a pest to their surroundings.

Three Possible Techniques

Around the same time as the attempted revival of the bucardo in 2003, Robert Lanza, Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology, took tissue from a Javan banteng (not yet extinct), and inserted it into an egg cell of a closely related cow. The cow gave birth to the exotic banteng, which is still alive and thriving.

 The cloned Javan banteng

Currently there are three semi-successful techniques being experimented with for de-extinction.

1.) Selective back-breeding of existing descendants to recreate a primordial ancestor is being used for the revival of the European Aurochs, among others.

2.) Cloning with cells from cryopreserved tissue of a recently extinct animal can generate viable eggs. If the eggs are implanted in a closely related surrogate mother, some pregnancies produce living offspring of the extinct species.

3.) Allele replacement for precision crossbreeding of a living species with an extinct species is a new genome-editing technique developed by Harvard geneticist, George Church. If the technique proves successful (such as with the passenger pigeon), it might be applied to the many other extinct species that have left their “ancient DNA” in museum specimens and fossils that are thousands of years old.

Over the coming years many new techniques will undoubtedly come to life making it one of the hottest new areas of science.

Reviving Extinct Humans

Resurrecting lost plants and animals are one thing, but when it comes to tampering with humans the stakes get much higher.

Here are a few examples of of the ethical dilemas we will be facing:

  • Could a young woman introduce the DNA of her own grandmother to her own eggs and essentially give birth to a baby ancestor?
  • If women could purchase the DNA of famous people, world leaders of the past, or top scientists, how many would be willing to pay for genetic material from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Paul McCartney, Richard Branson, or Steve Jobs?
  • By combining human and animal DNA, is it possible to create super-human DNA?

Are there moral and ethical boundaries that we should not cross? How will we know when we’ve gone too far?

Driven by ROI 

Very often what starts as a cause, to right the wrongs of the world, will get hijacked by businesses wanting to profit for the new technology. Moral and ethical edges of science are often vastly different than the lines businesses are willing to cross.

Genetic research like this is very expensive, and this recent awareness campaign will undoubtedly draw in millions.

However, the same people funding today’s research are often the same people wanting to recoup their investments, and the lens through which they are viewing the work is vastly different than the lens of scientists doing the research.

Certainly the moral divide, created by the chasm between knowledge-seekers and profit-seekers, varies on a case-by-case basis. It can range from non-existent to something very wide. But without good systems for governing research and outcomes, it may be wise to focus on the lack the checks and balances needed to prevent large-scale disasters.

Final thoughts 

The 1993 movie Jurassic Park did a great job of sensitizing the world to the idea that de-extinction may indeed be possible. As a result, many scientists decided to make it their mission in life.

While we will see some early successes over the next ten years, we will also see many setbacks. As Brand puts it, “De-extinction is not a ‘quick fix’ science. Most species revival projects will take many decades.”

At the same time, the sum total of all human knowledge is massively dwarfed by what we don’t know, and very often our attempts to control the world around us goes very wrong.

A good example of this was given by Allan Savory, an ecosystem scientist working in Africa when he recommended the slaughter of 40,000 elephants to help prevent desertification, only later to realize that elephant grazing itself was highly beneficial to thwart the encroachment of the desert.

Brand ended his talk with, “Humans made a huge hole in nature, and we have a moral obligation to repair the damage.”

Will the world be a better place if we bring some of our extinct animals back? Are the close proximities of animals that Brand describes close enough, or is this a dangerous area to be playing in? I’d love to hear your thoughts?

UPDATE:  On March 15, 2013, researchers announced that they've grown early-stage embryos of the gastric-brooding frog, a species that has been extinct since 1983. This is the first time, scientists have grown the embryos of an extinct species. Details in the Sydney Morning Herald.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

.

.

 

11 Responses

  1. Theresa DeGroote

    Yes! The passenger pigeon deserves to be brought back – and this may be the only way future generations will ever know the Amur leopard, javan rhinoceros, northern right whale, lowland gorilla and Amur tiger.

  2. admin

    Thanks Theresa, great comments.

    But playing the devil’s advocate, should we also revive the rodents and fish that they ate for food, the parasites that lived under their fur, the noxious weeds they used to bed down their dens, and the algae that lived in their drinking water? At this point we don’t know what all elements are necessary to create a viable ecosystem for these animals to survive in. And in the early stages of reviving a formerly extinct animal, they will need to do more than just survive. They will need to thrive.

    Tom

  3. Tom:

    Incredibly thought provoking…and so new it is hard to get my mind wrapped around it. I guess the thing that concerns me the most is that since biotech science in this field is moving so fast and with capitalism as the fundamental driver…evolution as a process is being turned on its head–and not necessarily in a way that protects/promotes our best interests as a species.

    It seems to me that there is a huge danger of humans quickly introducing large numbers of genetically engineered life-forms into our closed environment (earth)…without proper “vetting” of these life forms and their potential impact on our biosphere.

    What if we bring back a species that just happened to carry a virus or other disease that nothing on earth is set up to defend against?

    I say (if it is even possible to do so at this point) we leave this thing alone until we give it some serious thought.

  4. Garrett Goldwater

    I disagree with Theresa. Generations have “known” extinct species. To wit: The wooly mammoth; extinct for thousands of years, yet I and my children are aware of its having existed, what it looked like, how it lived, etc.
    Frankly, I have very little confidence in human beings being able to successfully manage nature, including the environment and population control. We are an audacious species possessing an alarming sense of superiority. De-extincting seems to me to be a resource drain for little, if any benefit to the planet. Just sayin’.

  5. Kennita Watson

    Darwin got it right with “survival of the fittest”. In going extinct, a species has shown that it is no longer the best fit for its environment; thus, to de-extinct it requires activism in giving it a constant boost, placing it in a new environment (thus disrupting it), or changing its current environment to one it is a better fit for. In general, we have better things to do with our brain power and resources. I think it is better that humans look to their future, rather than to their past. The extinct species don’t feel any angst over having gone extinct; only the living can mourn the dead. We have gotten far enough ahead of the game to be able to afford some nostalgia, but the world evolves and so must we. Excelsior!

  6. Garrett Goldwater

    Kennita said it better!

  7. admin

    Kennita,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I find myself torn in both directions on this one. But progress is happening with or without our blessing.

    On March 15, 2013, researchers announced that they’ve grown early-stage embryos of the gastric-brooding frog, a species that has been extinct since 1983. This is the first time, scientists have grown the embryos of an extinct species. Details in the Sydney Morning Herald – http://m.smh.com.au/environment/animals/extinct-frog-hops-back-into-the-gene-pool-20130315-2g68x.html

    Tom

  8. Spikosauropod

    My response to this is the same as my response to issues of patenting mathematical formulas: God, what a mess! Moreover, we may not have much time to arrive at a consensus.

    Someone needs to form a philosophical platform similar to the platform the United States adopted with regard to the spread of communism. We need a global vision like “containment”.

    I can’t imagine what that vision will be. Moreover, the moment we think we know what we are doing, something new will crop up. The game will keep changing…and it will change ever faster.

  9. admin

    Scott and Ray,

    Thanks for your comments and you’re right, this is very much an unleashing, but we definitely don’t know the downside of what may be unleashed.

    To be sure, the first person to resurrect the woolly mammoth will become very famous. The same with other famously extinct animals like the sabertooth tiger, or certain dinosaurs. Not so much for rats, and fish and insects. So there’s a financial incentive that may supersede good judgement.

    We’re entering new territory here. In some cases, humans caused the death of the species. A good case could be made for reviving them. For all others, it’s too early to tell.

    Tom

  10. Ari

    sounds like great idea it would be interesting to bring back neanderthals it would tell us a lot more about our own humanity like what truly make us different form them

  11. This is a huge topic and covers very many avenues of discussion, far too varied for this forum.

    However, the primary discussion is extinction of species, regardless of the cause. The primary argument for NOT re-generating lost species is the time factor since the event. As we all know, species evolve in CONTEXT with other species from the same chronological sequence. This evolutionary process is complimentary to the species evolution and therefore is an essential part of the ability of the species to survive. Not only is this food chain dependancy, but reliance on micro-organisms in the gut or dependance on a specific parasite or agent that is also long extinct. To bring a species ‘back’ in isolation is compounded by time, as the environment specific to that life-form is also lost and can never be fully replicated. A species that became extinct within the last 50 years or so may well be able to survive, as it’s habitat could well be re-created fully. However, a Jurassic species would be well and truly ‘alien’ to the world of today and would be lost without the world it had left behind.

    As for Neanderthals being re-visited as a species, I am sure that given a ‘normal’ upbringing from birth in a western household, the usual evolution of Xbox and Facebook would ensure a prolific rejuvenation.

Leave a comment