If you're anything like me, the notion of extinction-reversal calls to mind images of galimimus stampedes, venom-spewing dilophosaurusus and a hulking tyrannosaurus rex chasing down Jeff Goldbloom in the rain. Unfortunately for us romantics though, gathering DNA from fossils that are over 70-million years old becoming a possibility is very unlikely — much younger species, however, is a different story.
With the recent TEDx DeExtinction
conference that was held a week and half ago in Washington, D.C., molecular biologists, ornithologists and bioethicists are bringing what has previously been a markedly private discussion into the public arena. In fact, the discussion is becoming so public that National Geographic
has chosen the topic of deextinction for its April cover story, and it's easy to see why. As scientists around the globe make remarkable headway, it's becoming clear that the idea of reviving extinct species is far from Hollywood pseudoscience.
In repeated experiments over the course of the last five years, Australian researchers
at University of Newcastle's Lazarus project brought a species of frog back from a short-lived extinction using a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). In the 1980s, parasites, fungus, flora growth and habitat loss all contributed to the tragic vanishing of the gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) — an amphibian native to small regions in Queensland, Australia and famous for swallowing its eggs, brooding its young in its stomach and giving birth to them through its mouth.
For the past 40 years, eggs belonging to the gastric-brooding frog species were kept frozen while scientists waited for the day when their technology would catch up with their eagerness to innovate. Though none of the embryos survived past the first week, "genetic tests confirm that the little balls of life were in fact full of the genetic material from the extinct species," Inhabitat reports
“We’ve reactivated dead cells into living ones and revived the extinct frog’s genome in the process. Now we have fresh cryo-preserved cells of the extinct frog to use in future cloning experiments," says Professor Mike Archer
of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, "We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step."
An even more remarkable case is that of Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park wildlife veterinarian, Alberto Fernández-Arias, who worked with his team in 2003 to bring a bucardo (a species of wild goat) back from extinction
using DNA the team had collected from the ear of Celia, the last female bucardo, before she was crushed to death beneath a snapped tree trunk in the wild. Sadly, after a mere ten minutes, Celia's clone died of a respiratory malfunction — a common misfortune among cloned animals.
Numerous ethical concerns with deextinction have been voiced, one of which was brought up by Stewart Brand during his recent The Dawn of De-extinction. Are You Ready?
TEDx discussion. "They're [conservationists] excited about all this," Brand says, "but they're also concerned that it might be competitive with the extremely important efforts to protect endangered species that are still alive, that haven't gone extinct yet." While ultimately valid, this concern seems less like an ethical dilemma and more like a general lack of conservation awareness.
An astonishing 99 percent of species that roamed the planet, at one time or another, are now extinct and some scientists
believe that as many as 10,000 different species have gone extinct in the past 100 years alone. But the list of species that man has been directly responsible for eradicating seems endless and ever-expanding.
For instance, take the slow-moving and easily-captured Stellar's sea cow
, a mammal even larger than a tyrannosaurus rex that is capable of feeding 33 adults for as long as one month, was hunted to the point of extinction by humans within 27 years of its discovery by Europeans in 1741. Or consider the zanzibar leopards
which were believed to have been kept by witches, and so they were aggressively hunted and rendered extinct in 1996. Or the West African black rhinoceros
, one of four species of rhinos on the planet, whose horns were believed by some in Yemen and China to possess aphrodisiac powers, was poached to the point of extinction in 2006.
Some interesting questions are being asked since the scientific discussion went public. Do we have a moral obligation to bring these species back to life? Should it be human inquisitiveness alone that encourages the new field's advancement? Are there some species, such as the hearty Stellar's sea cow, that if revived, could help support the ever-expanding population of our planet? I, for one, think the latter question is motive enough to keep the wheels of deextinction moving.
“People are going to try to do it,” Scott V. Edwards, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, says, “I think human curiosity has rarely been checked voluntarily. ... It’s a lot of complex questions as to whether it’s a good or bad thing: People might say humans need to be more cognizant of our actions and we can’t be constantly correcting our rampant destruction of the environment with these quick-fix technologies.”
As exciting as all this sounds, the general consensus in the scientific community is that there is still a lot of work to be done before these resurrected species are strong enough to survive in the wild for more than a few days. “We’re increasingly confident that the hurdles ahead are technological and not biological and that we will succeed," claims Professor Archer, who goes on to say, "Importantly, we’ve demonstrated already the great promise this technology has as a conservation tool when hundreds of the world’s amphibian species are in catastrophic decline.”
Deextinction, as a science, is capable of so much. Acting as a sort of inverted time machine, it allows mankind's overreach to recede slightly, into less alarming territory. It's also an extremely stimulating development which could hope to inspire future generations of molecular biologists — much like the Apollo missions in the 1960s spawned a second generation of brilliant aerospace engineers who were responsible for amazing feats like the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars
. The celebration of great science will always give rise to the coming of great scientists.