The Ethics Behind Reviving Extinct Species

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In the cold, arctic, icy slopes of Siberia, researchers were chasing a rumor. The remote island of Maly Lyakhovsky was said to have a mammoth tusk sticking out of the permafrost. They trekked and found not only the tusks, but a whole mammoth beneath the ice. The fur was still intact and as the Russian scientists probed further a red liquid began to ooze out. Blood. This mammoth was found to be about 40,000 years old and it’s blood was still preserved. Blood means DNA and DNA means maybe we can have more mammoths? Imagine a mammoth grazing in the arctic of Siberia today? Those were the thoughts running through these scientist’s heads back when this happened in 2013.

The ongoing question then becomes, should we do it? Well first, let’s start with how it could be done. There are three ways currently to perform de-extinction or Resurrection Biology as it’s called: back-breeding, cloning, or genetic engineering.

Back-breeding is a method that finds species that are closely related to the extinct species in question and selectively breeds them for the traits of the extinct species. The goal here is to selectively breed species enough so that what is developed is a species that resembles the extinct one as closely as possible. These traits could be anything from breeding mourning doves with darker and darker feather pigmentation to resemble our extinct passenger pigeon or breeding the furriest of the Asian elephants together to resemble a wholly mammoth. We have already utilized this method heavily in dog breeding.

Cloning involves having a living organism and obtaining one of it’s cells. Therefore, this is best done before the animal actually goes extinct. The cells are preserved, and once the species goes extinct the nucleus is extracted from one of the cells. Meanwhile, a cell from its closest relative also has its nucleus extracted. The extinct species’ nucleus goes into the relative’s cell, like a little swap, and it’s placed into a surrogate host. Then the scientists cross their fingers and hope that the embryo survives to completion. Even if it does succeed, there are problems that arise with attempting to fill a population with these creatures. The genetic diversity of this method is very low and not the most sustainable in that way.

The newest method is genetic engineering, and this holds the most promise for our mammoth. Researchers use CRISPR, a genetic editing tool to modify specific genes. The DNA from the extinct species is compared with the DNA of its closest living relative. The extinct species’ most important genes (such as ones that define behavior) are then implanted into the relative’s DNA, creating a hybrid genome. These cells are placed into a surrogate and again, they hope for the best. This doesn’t re-create the species exactly, but researchers hope that it will resemble the animal in function and behavior, just maybe not in looks.

We are getting into the time where movies like Jurassic Park are closer to the real thing than you might think. But we must be wary and utilize it for the right purposes. In Jurassic Park the only reason the dinosaurs were brought back was for entertainment purposes. There was no intention for them to be released into the wild. Ecologist, Douglas McCauley made a good point when he mentioned that there are three criteria for bringing extinct animals back to life: they must serve a unique purpose, we have to focus on the most recent extinctions first, and only to focus on species that would serve an important ecological role in their abundance. Bringing the focus on ecology, not tourism, is an important step in deciding when to perform de-extinction.

If we wait too long before reintroducing a species after it has gone extinct, many critics say it would be like a 50-year-old man deciding to go back to high school, and suddenly realizing he’s out of place. We also don’t know if certain reintroduced species may become invasive within this novel landscape and harm native species communities that have persisted there since. It really depends on time-scale. The bottom line is that de-extinction is a powerful and exciting advancement but with everything comes risk. If too much time passes there may no longer be a niche for that species to fill. Animals such as the black and white rhinoceroses and many other critically endangered species may benefit the most by this type of technology since their niche is still there.

All-in-all this wholly mammoth dream may never happen. In order for genetic engineering to succeed in this, an Asian elephant would have to give birth to a mammoth. This has been attempted before, but the embryo has never survived long enough, and the gestation period of Asian elephants is about 18-22 months. Not to mention that they only get pregnant every 5 years, so it involves a lot of waiting. Scientists are still very interested in the wholly mammoth not for its aesthetic appeal but for it’s ecological application, as the arctic doesn’t have large grazers anymore to fertilize the soil and knock down trees like the mammoth did. The hope is that in restoring the mammoths they can decrease permafrost melt into the ocean, which contains methane, an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas.

There are a multitude of components that go into how ecosystems function. We can only attempt to modify it by trial and error, but isn’t it better to try? About 150 species disappear every day largely due to human actions and most ecologists believe that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction right now. We’ve used technology to advance medical practices, update our cellphones and cars, why not use it to aid our environment?