Seriously, have we NOT learnt ANYTHING from Jurassic Park?!
According to Macquarie Oxford Dictionary, the definition of de-extinction (a.k.a resurrection biology) is “to bring back (an animal or plant species) from extinction, as by inserting its genome into a living cell from a similar species.”
But before you get excited and think that means we can bring dinosaurs back, it’s far more limiting. National Geographic says only animals that have died within the “past few ten thousand years” can be brought back because there will be enough intact cells or DNA extracted in order to reconstruct the species’ genome.
“How do they turn that into an animal?” I hear you ask. Simple. After taking DNA samples, scientists then reconstruct the full genome of the deceased species. They then find a close living relative and extract embryonic cells, removing its own DNA and implanting the reconstructed sample into the cell. Finally, the embryonic cells are inserted back into the surrogate mother where the pregnancy can begin and, fingers crossed, carried to full-term.
This entire journey was all pure fantasy until a group of Spanish and French scientists brought back the Pyrenean ibex (or bucardo, a type of wild goat), which was declared extinct in 2000 due to excessive hunting. The last ibex was a female named Celia, who was tracked via radio collar but died from a fallen tree. Celia’s cells were collected and the de-extinction process began.
A baby clone was born from a surrogate goat on July 30, 2003 but died 10 minutes after birth due to lung defects. This was the first confirmation needed to prove resurrection biology is definitely real and closer than we think. Perhaps if extinction occurred at the fault of humans, bringing them back could be like saying sorry.
Professor Claire Wade, Chair of Computational Biology and Animal Genomics at University of Sydney, explained to The Newsroom, “Almost definitely humans have had important negative impacts on a number of species that were either consumable or seen as an impediment to agriculture.”
Other possible de-extinction candidates include the dodo (1662), thylacine Tasmanian Tiger (1936), passenger pigeon (1914) and saber-toothed tiger (10,000 years ago). Resurrecting the woolly mammoth, which went extinct 4,000 years ago, is also in the works: well-preserved mammoth tissue (bone marrow, hair, skin and fat) has been found in the mammoth’s natural habitat of the Siberian tundra.
Although mammoths are well within the tens of thousands timeline for possible resurrection, the only closest living relatives are elephants. The problem with this is the gestation period: Asian elephants have a gestation period of 18-22 months, while African elephants have a full 22 months. The risk of major complications and birth defects is high. There is also no way of bringing back an exact replica of an extinct animal, including the mammoth, but similar variations are possible.
Professor Wade explained how probable de-extinction really is. “At this stage, it may be possible in the near future depending on the complexity of the animal, the means of gestating it, and the availability of an animal that is a near evolutionary relative,” she said.
“There is no reason to think they would not survive if multiple genetic variable individuals existed, if both sexes were present and if they were subject to a stringent conservation effort.”
Professor Wade believes resurrected animals should not go back into the wild. Instead, she said they “need to be carefully kept in captivity – otherwise they would be at risk of poaching.”
“If the same factors that caused extinction remained in the wild, it is very likely [resurrected animals] would go extinct again without careful human intervention,” Professor Wade said.
The last thing that caught my attention was the idea of bringing back extinct animals would be really cool. Is that what motivates the scientists to do this, or is there another reason to bring these animals back?
“The public almost certainly do [believe this to be “cool”],” said Professor Wade. “I don’t think I do, because there would remain important problems relating to animal welfare and population survival as a result of limited genetic diversity.”
The cost of resurrecting a single extinct species is between tens of thousands to several million dollars. Perhaps this technology could instead help save what’s left of endangered species that have trouble breeding in captivity, rather than bringing back ones that are long gone from our world. – Bianca Busuttil
Top photo of woolly mammoth skeleton from Timothy Neesam’s Flickr photostream.