It sounds like science fiction, but a couple of groups of genetic researchers are actively working on bringing back extinct species like the wooly mammoth and the Dodo bird. It’s a complicated issue, filled with all kinds of ethical questions and scientific advancements but when all is said and done, it could be a boon to genetic research and serve as a springboard for technologies that could make our lives better.
And the sailors thought this bird was hilarious. It couldn’t fly, it was weird and round and awkward, and when it tried to run away, it would wobble and drag its belly on the ground.
The dodo didn’t have any defenses against predators because there weren’t any on the island. This made the sailors think the bird was dumb and lazy.
That can happen. That’s why I got a Predator Clone…
But back to the Dodo. Over the years, ships from other countries like Britain and the Netherlands stopped at the island. And while they found the dodo to be amusing, they also found it to be… Well… Delicious.
They were easy to hunt and probably tasted like chicken so when their food supplies ran low, well, Dodo was on the menu.
The Dutch ended up colonizing Mauritius in 1644 and brought with them other animals, like cats, dogs, pigs, and monkeys.
These animals invaded the woods where the dodo lived. They would trample or eat the bird’s eggs and young.
This animal interference and being eaten by humans led to the dodo’s complete extinction by 1681.
This is an example of a man-caused extinction.
But one company wants to reverse this error: Colossal Biosciences.
The company believes that “re-wilding” extinct species may help improve or restore habitats that have missed the animals.
As CEO Ben Lamm told Dallas Innovates in January 2023:
“Our guiding vision is to restore extinct species and protect endangered species that play integral roles within their ecosystems. Returning extinct keystone species to their original habitats can help restore ecosystems impoverished by their absence and add to biodiversity.”
So, what are the pros and cons of bringing back animals from extinction?
I mean… we know the cons.
The cons being of course that they could ruin our kitchens.
But what about the pros? Outside of just being cool to see them in a zoo or somehting, could they restore lost ecosystems or bring nature back into balance? And maybe even more interesting, is there anything we could learn along the way?
Let’s first define what we mean by “extinction.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, extinction occurs when a species is diminished because of environmental forces, like global change, natural disasters, overexploitation, or habitat fragmentation.
They don’t call it the Sixth Great Extinction for nothing.
So, what criteria should be used to bring these animals back?
One of the first criteria to consider is how easily a species can be brought back to life.
And yes, sexy went extinct in 2015.
A second consideration is determining if the original cause of extinction can be avoided once the species returns to its natural habitat. No use bringing them back just to go extinct again.
For example, the Southern Gastric-Brooding Frog went extinct because of a chytrid fungus. If it was revived, that same fungus could kill it off again.
And then you have to think about if humans caused a species to go extinct. We’re not always known for correcting our bad habits. Who’s to say we wouldn’t wipe out a species again?
Third, there should be consideration of the availability of the specie’s natural habitat.
As professor of history Dolly Jørgensen wrote in a paper published in BioScience in 2013:
“The International Union for Conservation of Nature … developed guidelines … [that] suggest background studies to allow identification of the species’ habitat requirements, … evaluation of potential sites within the former range of the species… should be addressed before reintroduction proceeds.”
So, how does de-extinction work?
We can clone an animal if we have well-preserved cells with intact nuclei. Those cells can grow in a Petri dish that gets them to act like embryonic cells.
Since the cell’s nucleus has genomic DNA, we can transfer an intact nucleus into a donor’s egg whose nucleus has been removed.
We can then implant that egg into a surrogate mother and hope that it grows into a healthy baby. Both the donor egg and surrogate mom would be from closely related living species.
And this has totally been done before. It was first done in 2003, with a Pyrean ibex. They were able to do it with a frozen skin sample.
Unfortunately, it died within minutes after birth.
There are a few companies working on de-extinction projects. One of them is Revive & Restore out of California.
They’re a wildlife conversation group that uses biotechnology for conservation practices. According to its website, its “vision is to revive biodiversity and restore ecosystems for millennia to come.”
The company held its first public meeting on de-extinction in 2013. The wooly mammoth and passenger pigeon would be the first species it would focus on.
For the wooly mammoth, they talked about combining a whole suite of technologies including bioengineering, cellular resources, genome research, and reproductive techniques.
They’re applying similar tools to the passenger pigeon, but their main focus is on endangered species that need genetic rescue, like the black-foot ferret and the (chev-AL-ski’s) Przewalski’s horse.
In 2021, another company took over Revive & Restore’s wooly mammoth project: Colossal Biosciences.
Headquartered right here in my backyard, Dallas, Colossal has received a lot of press since it announced that it would revive the woolly mammoth.
Let’s back up for a second. It’s not technically going to be a true woolly mammoth. According to Colossal, it will be:
“… more specifically a cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the Woolly Mammoth. It will walk like a Woolly Mammoth, look like one, sound like one, but most importantly it will be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the Mammoth’s extinction.”
The DNA in a woolly mammoth is 99.6 percent identical to that of a living Asian elephant, according to the Mammoth Genome Project.
Colossal scientists are using CRISPR genome editing to help close that .4 percent gap.
When two species are closely related, a lot of the DNA sequence differences don’t matter that much and won’t affect any proteins produced.
Like Colossal said, researchers aren’t looking to create a 100 percent woolly mammoth. Instead, they’re modifying the Asian elephant’s DNA to produce a hybrid animal with mammoth-like traits.
Even with all the technology and research available, we’re looking at least 10 years before we see a hybrid woolly mammoth.
Colossal has several goals for reviving the woolly mammoth.
- Slow down the melting of the Arctic permafrost
- Drive advancement in multiplex genome editing
- Save modern elephants from extinction
Shouldn’t we focus more on the present and future and less on the past?
There are some scientists who argue it would be more beneficial to focus on preventing extinction. That we should focus our efforts on climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and overharvesting, they say.
As scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote in Yale Environment 360 in 2014:
“Spending millions of dollars trying to de-extinct a few species will not compensate for the thousands of populations and species that have been lost due to human activities, to say nothing of restoring the natural functions of their former habitats.”
The Ehrlichs go on to suggest the reintroduction of a surviving endangered species is already an intensive effort. More effort should be allocated in that than in “laboratory-created resurrections.”
Humans are constantly transforming Earth, so re-introducing an extinct species may not even be successful. And there are other risks, like the species could turn out to carry plagues or retroviruses in their genomes.
But for the Ehrlichs, the biggest problem with de-extinction is “moral hazard.” That’s a term from economics for when someone is more willing to take a risk when others will be partly responsible for potential costs.
And yeah, for some scientists, the moral hazard just far outweighs the benefits. And instead, we should be focusing on reducing our impact on the environment.
Beth Shapiro is a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s also the author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine in 2015, she suggested that de-extinction may not be the right answer to our biodiversity crisis.
But the technologies being developed for de-extinction could become new tools for conservation efforts.
As she told Smithsonian:
“Why not provide populations a little bit of genomic assistance so they can survive in a world that is changing too quickly for natural evolutionary processes to keep up?”
There’s a famous quote from Jurassic Park that goes:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
But for some anti-de-extinction scientists, a more fitting one for this subject may be from the third movie in the series:
“Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”
But maybe not. Like Shapiro said, de-extinction progress could help other species, including ourselves, survive an increasingly hostile world.
For example, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Machine Biology Group recently resurrected molecules with antibiotic properties from our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.
It’s a new thing called molecular de-extinction.
The scientists gathered sequenced genome data collected from bones and artifacts. They then trained an AI model to predict which molecules could make effective antibiotics for today’s humans.
They then created those molecules in the lab after the AI found the strongest candidates. Testing them in mice, they found some of the molecules were great at fighting off bacterial infections.
If there are clinically successful results in humans, this could be a watershed moment for the world because we need new antibiotics.
A UN report in 2019 said that the death toll from drug-resistant infections may rise to 10 million by 2050 if we don’t address the issue quickly.
Who would have thought that reviving the wooly mammoth could lead to solutions to antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
And those are just the potential spinoff benefits that we can think of. Who knows what other breakthroughs could come about?
And honestly for me, that’s reason enough to go for it. Like I make this argument about space travel, our lives are immeasurably better because of spinoff technologies that came from the space program.
That’s why I’m generally – not always, but generally – in favor of these kinds of big scientific swings. You just never know what amazing things could come out of it.
I mean, really, what possible bad thing could come from DNA editing and cloning technology?