DE-EXTINCTION OR DISASTER?
De-extinction, also known as resurrection biology, as the name suggests, is the process of resurrecting a species that has gone extinct. In order to qualify as extinct, there cannot be a remaining living member of that specific species or family. Although extinctions are part of Earth’s natural evolution, there has been a great increase in the number of species that have become extinct specifically in the last few centuries; many of these extinctions can be directly correlated with human interference. It is estimated that “99% of the four billion species that have evolved on earth are now gone.” Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund assist in gauging the ‘natural rate of extinction versus the rate of extinction influenced by the human population. As the WWF stated; “Unlike other mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species – ours – appears to be almost wholly responsible.”
The notion of de-extinction was once upon a time something that really only existed within the realm of sci-fi novels and movies, however significant advances in reproductive cloning and genetic modification technology as well as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) have placed the potential to resurrect species back on the table. Post the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996 using SCNT, scientists attempted de-extinction in 2009 by creating a clone of a Pyrenean Ibex (a type of Iberian wild goat) using preserved tissue to do so. The clone survived mere minutes after being born due to a lung defect. Such techniques and technologies raise the question as to whether or not it is ethical to bring a species back from extinction. Thinking back on the fictional realm of the Jurassic Park movies which capitalised on the idea of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction using preserved DNA and tissue found in amber and the resultant chaos caused by this, should humans really be interfering further.
Realistically however, dinosaurs would not make good de-extinction candidates based on the age and state of the preserved DNA specimens. That being said, there are a number of other species that may qualify including the likes of Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) or the Woolly Mammoth. The last recorded thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger died in 1930. Researchers and scientists in Australia and the US are embarking on a project to bring it back to life. The costly project will look to utilise stem cells and gene editing technology and have given themselves ten years to reintroduce the ‘species back into the wild.’ There are many experts and scientists who sit on the other side of the fence and believe that the idea of de-extinction is a “fairy-tale.” Colossal, the US based company working in conjunction with the University of Melbourne on this project, also intends to utilise a similar technology in order to resurrect the woolly Mammoth too. It remains to be seen if this is merely media fodder, or cutting edge and history making technology.