Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bringing An Extinct Species Back To Life

De-Extinction & Ethical Considerations


Mammoths in Siberia?: These long-extinct creatures might help renew the Siberian steppes,
reports National Geographic
"What would we do with mammoths if we could clone them?
Biologist Sergey Zimov’s suggestion: Set them loose in Pleistocene Park, a refuge he established in northeastern Siberia in 1996. Zimov argues that mammoths and other large Ice Age herbivores
sustained the Siberian steppe that sustained them: They ate the grass, but they also fertilized it
and tilled the soil with their hooves. Horses, bison, and other introduced herbivores are already
transforming the park’s moss-dominated tundra back into grassland a mammoth could call home."

Art Credit: Raúl Martín
Source: National Georgraphic; Sergey Zimov, Northeast Science Station; Nikita Zimov,
Pleistocene Park

An article, by Carl Zimmer, in National Geographic looks at the issue of bringing long-extinct animals back to life through modern cloning technologies. Also called de-extinction, some scientists support such an approach, for one, as a way for taking responsibility for human actions in the extinction of many species no longer around.

In 2003, Spanish and French scientists cloned an animal— a bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) named Celia—briefly back to life; the clone lived for ten minutes, the newborn held by Alberto Fernández-Arias, a Spanish wildlife veterinarian .Zimmer writes: "The buckaroo was a large, handsome creature, reaching up to 220 pounds and sporting long, gently curved horns. For thousands of years it lived high in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, nibbling on leaves and stems and enduring harsh winters."

That was ten years ago, and now the biotechnology for cloning has become better; this raises the important question on why we should consider bringing once-extinct species back to life.
The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world. For most of that time the science of de-extinction has lagged far behind the fantasy. Celia’s clone is the closest that anyone has gotten to true de-extinction. Since witnessing those fleeting minutes of the clone’s life, Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department, has been waiting for the moment when science would finally catch up, and humans might gain the ability to bring back an animal they had driven extinct.
“We are at that moment,” he told me.
I met Fernández-Arias last autumn at a closed-session scientific meeting at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the first time in history a group of geneticists, wildlife biologists, conservationists, and ethicists had gathered to discuss the possibility of de-extinction. Could it be done? Should it be done? One by one, they stood up to present remarkable advances in manipulating stem cells, in recovering ancient DNA, in reconstructing lost genomes. As the meeting unfolded, the scientists became increasingly excited. A consensus was emerging: De-extinction is now within reach.
“It’s gone very much further, very much more rapidly than anyone ever would’ve imagined,” says Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species.”
[...]
“If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this,” says Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales who has championed de-extinction for years. Some people protest that reviving a species that no longer exists amounts to playing God. Archer scoffs at the notion. “I think we played God when we exterminated these animals.”
That might be the case. Yet, there are many ethical questions, such as whether extinct species introduced into the wild can survive hunters and poachers; whether they might introduce unanticipated viruses to neighbouring species; and would they need be kept in a lab or a zoo as a specially protected species where they would be viewed as an oddity?

These possible negative consequences should give some pause to scientists in how fast they move ahead; for one, it shouldn't be done for reasons of novelty or entertainment, as was the case in the film Jurassic Park, but for true scientific advances in the betterment of humanity, where once-extinct species contribute to nature's biodiversity. Curiosity remains a factor, as does scientific prestige. The thought of seeing a such extinct species like the woolly mammoth or a saber-toothed cat bounding about the earth is pretty exciting for many scientists.

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Youi can read the rest of the article at [NatGeo]