Recreating the wild: De-extinction, technology, and the ethics of conservation
(LRC) Imagine that you are standing on the streets of Toronto or Hamilton on a spring day sometime in the 19th century. The skies begin to darken as a massive flock of birds passes overhead, blotting the sun. The beating of billions of wings rumbles like thunder, stirring up a wind that chills you to the bone. The flock might take days to pass. The birds were passenger pigeons, once found across North America east of the Rockies. About the size of our pigeons today, the males had a coppery breast, the females were somewhat plainer, and they travelled in gargantuan numbers. A single flock could stretch over 150 kilometres, and number in the billions: in the spring of 1860, a flock estimated at over 3.7 billion birds flew over Ontario. Gorging themselves on tree nuts, such as acorns, they could clear entire forests; the weight of roosting pigeons would cause whole limbs to drop from the trees. And we think pigeons today are a pest.
Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America, maybe in the world. At one point, they outnumbered humans on our planet. But over the course of just 50 years, we managed to wipe them out, hunting them to oblivion. (Martha, the last of her kind, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.) Until very recently, the extinction of the passenger pigeon—a plump, tasty creature once served in restaurants in New York and Toronto—seemed a shame, and simply that. Some now see it as an opportunity. New technologies could allow us to bring the passenger pigeon back from the dead—to “de-extinct” it, in the somewhat clunky terminology of the day. It is just one candidate species that has been floated for conjuring from the past, alongside the Neanderthal, the T. rex, and the fan favourite, the woolly mammoth. If a variety of pigeon seems a humble animal to resurrect, there are other conservative choices, including a strange little frog that vomits its babies out of its mouth when it reproduces, and which went extinct in the 1980s.
(Futurism) Using modern technology to revive extinct species is known simply as “de-extinction,” though the process is not what you’d call simple.
It’s like putting together a jigzaw puzzle that has 900 million pieces. And is still missing some. And you don’t have the picture on the box. But you have a puzzle that’s similar as reference.
The key components of all species’ DNA are nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine — noted by the letters A, C, G, and T, respectively. The Harvard team started with 900 million of the moa’s nucleotides to start piecing together its entire genome (they aren’t saying how many they needed for a complete genome). Using the genome of a modern bird relative, the emu, to fill in the blanks, the researchers were able to piece together about 85 percent of the bird’s genome — on par with the genomes of other extinct species.
Once scientists organize the genome, the next step is deciding how to best attempt to revive the species. Researchers can opt for “backbreeding,” a process in which they take a closely related species and selectively breed it until they produce something akin to the extinct species. If the species hasn’t been extinct for very long and researchers have a sample from, perhaps, the last living member, cloning may also be a viable option. The third option — using genetic engineering — is relatively new. With an accurate assembly of an extinct species’ genetic data, researchers can inject them into an egg of a living species that’s genetically close to the one they’re attempting to bring back to life
(The Hastings Center) Is true de-extinction possible?
Advances in biology have revealed the ways the environment influences species’ genomes. Even if scientists could produce creatures with DNA identical to that of extinct species, different environmental pressures would alter their genomes in novel ways, raising the possibility that those creatures would differ from the extinct species. “Species are entangled with other species, the land, and ecological events and processes,” writes Ronald Sandler, director of the Ethics Institute at Northwestern University. “If scientists merely create organisms genetically similar to previously existing species, neither the species nor its relationships are regenerated.” Still, some experts think that creating organisms that are similar to extinct species might have ecological benefits.
Does de-extinction support or undermine the goals of conservation?
Many scientists believe that although the maintenance of biodiversity benefits ecosystems, changes to the environment could make the reintroduction of extinct species difficult–possibly even ecologically disruptive. Curt Meine, a senior fellow with the Center for Humans and Nature and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, writes that species reintroduction does not take place in a “social or ecological vacuum” and that the interactions of a species with its physical and social environment are critical for its success.
… “By proposing that we can revive species through modern technology, we give the impression that species are ‘throwaway’ items,” write Robert DeSalle, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and George Amato, director of the conservation genomics program at the institute. And Phil Seddon, chair of a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature task force that issued guidelines for attempting de-extinction, argues that, although conservationists need to be willing to use new biotechnologies for conservation goals, de-extinction may not be the best place to start.
Illustration by Meredith Sadler