De-extinction

Mammoth at SmithsonianFor those who aren’t familiar, de-extinction involves reviving extinct species by using bits of preserved DNA, or manufacturing synthetic DNA that codes for traits the extinct species is known to have exhibited (like a long tail, brown fur, sharp fangs, etc).  DNA can be transformed into germ cells (precursors of eggs and sperm), transplanted into a surrogate mother representing the closest living relative species, and carried to term.  Sound like a method similar to that used to clone Dolly the sheep? It is…and the same concerns associated with cloning animals apply to de-extinction, as well as a number of others.

The de-extinction movement has received considerable attention in recent months.  Large, block letters on the cover of National Geographic’s April 2013 issue read: “REVIVING EXTINCT SPECIES.”   A March 2013 article featured in Scientific American asked the ethically loaded question: “will we kill of today’s animals if we revive extinct ones?” An independently organized TED conference, “TEDxDeExtinction,” which convened in Washington D.C. on March 15, 2013, was the first-ever public exploration of the topic.  Twenty-five of the world’s experts on de-extinction gave talks at the March 15 conference, including Carl Zimmer, the author of the aforementioned National Geographic article.  (Further reading on de-extinction can be found at The Long Now Foundation). Given the growing intrigue surrounding this idea of de-extinction, we thought it would be worthwhile to write a post in an effort to raise awareness in the biomimicry community and ask our colleagues a few burning questions.

I first learned about de-extinction by listening to Steven Brand’s February 2013 TEDTalk ,“The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready?”  Both Emily and I were instantaneously repulsed by the concept, and scared to learn that a number of high profile scientists are advocating for it.  I’m no expert on the topic, but my training in biotechnology leads me to a number of concerns, as does Emily’s coursework in Technology and the Human Prospect a class developed and taught by an outstanding professor, Paul Pinet, at Colgate University.

First and foremost, what’s the real motive behind the de-extinction movement?  Do we want to bring back extinct species purely for their ecosystem value, or for their functional value as it relates exclusively to humans (e.g. crop pollination)? Do we seek to expand biodiversity through de-extinction, or are we simply hooked by it’s sci-fi coolness?  Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales who has championed de-extinction for years once said: “If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this [bring them back to life].”  But I’m forced to wonder, is de-extinction just a way to assuage our guilt for the harm we’ve inflicted on our earthly neighbors?

Second, what is the root of the problem? What caused the species to become extinct in the first place?  If it was a recent extinction, is human-driven climate change to blame?  Could a revived species thrive in an existing ecosystem or would that have to reconstructed as well?  Relatedly, did the extinction of a keystone species cause a cascade of domino extinctions that affected the species in question? Was the extinct species maladaptive? If it could not compete, why bring it back?  This last question is particularly relevant to the practice of biomimicry.  After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival (Biomimicry 3.8). An extinct species might simply represent a collection of failed survival strategies.

Third, is it responsible to invest resources in de-extinction which might be invested elsewhere?  In 2012, approximately 20,000 species were listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Most people don’t even realize that in their lifetime they could bear witness to the extinction of a number of well known species…that their children could grow up in a world where they’d never have the opportunity to see a wild (or captive) hummingbird, peacock, Grevy’s zebra, Przewalski horse, Rothschild Giraffe, howler monkey, etc.  Why invest our time, energy, and money researching how to bring back extinct species, when we could invest it in keeping them here in the first place?  Before we can even consider giving an extinct species a second go on this planet, we should work towards solving some of the environmental problems which make earth a sub-par habitat.  Besides, we’ve only identified an estimated 10% of species existing today.  We need to achieve a broader understanding of our planet’s biodiversity, the system of species which could be positively or negatively impacted by de-extinction, before we jump the gun.

Fourth, what are the implications if de-extinction becomes commonplace?  What does our brave new world look like?  The following questions are relevant to cloning and synthetic biology, as well.  If de-extinction is regularly practiced, will we still work to conserve extant creatures?  If we are habitualized to think any species can be brought back to life, will we ever learn to live sustainably?   We will ever accept that we are simply a species among species, one vote in a parliament of 30 million (Janine Benyus).  Will we bring back wooly mammoths only to slaughter them for their 15-foot tusks all over again?  Will we be tempted into favoritism, allowing only favorite species to predominate. Lest we forget species favoritism has already resulted in decreased agricultural diversity.  Organisms brought back from the dead will not be identical to their natural predecessors.  Could a slight difference (in health for example) lead to unpredictable properties, and irreversibly contamine the existing gene pool?  Dolly the cloned sheep died from  a progressive lung disease, and the first de-extincted bucardo died after 10 minutes due to severe birth defects.

At the start of my education in biotechnology, I was all for genetically modified organisms.  The more I learned, the more my mindset changed.  Yes, biotechnology is advancing quickly and becoming more precise, and it may provide solutions to human problems of famine, vitamin A shortage, and pest-resistance.  But is biotechnology the ONLY solution to these problems? Is it the safest? We can’t let biotech distract us from the root causes of problems like extinction.  I know I would rather devote our careers to the search for sustainable solutions to our design problems that are more dependably compatible with the natural world.

We look forward to your reactions to this post!

PS. Thanks Emily for your great editing work and adding some powerful thoughts.

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One comment

  1. Natural Historian

    De-extinction is a nice buzz-word and probably really can be done. But could we really call something brought back non-extinct? Any animal brought back would be utterly lacking in genetic variability and thus not really a viable species. A cool novelty I suppose and I would be thrilled to have some flightless Moa that were taller than me to check out at my local zoo but I don’t see them retaking New Zealand from the invasive carnivores we have brought there, including ourselves.

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