Could Mr. DNA, who got trapped in amber, be enough to make that happen? Recently, scientists have discovered ways to resurrect extinct species by utilizing remnants of their DNA. The issue of carrying out this de-extinction is not whether we could do it or not, it is whether we should do it or not. Scientists have already successfully cloned many previously extinct animals, such as a dozen pigeons, some cows, and the famous sheep, Dolly, among many more. When it comes to the topic of resurrecting extinct species, scientists seem to be evenly split for and against it, with some of the major opportunities being huge advances in genetic engineering, restoration of damaged ecosystems, and human redemption.
Some of the major concerns are animal welfare, whether humans would be “playing God”, and risk of creating an invasive species.
How would de-extinction even be possible? Although it seems very complex, it actually is rather simple. To artificially create life, we just need the trifecta to come together–some DNA, an egg, and a surrogate.
Three main methods have been introduced to bring back extinct species: cloning, reverse engineering, and “breeding back”. None of these have yet been deemed the “save all” method, as they all work best in different situations. The first method, cloning, entails getting a sample of DNA from the extinct species and then repairing nicks in the DNA by analyzing a similar, live species’ genome. Once scientists determine which nucleotides or gene sequences best match, they splice them into the extinct animal’s DNA, similar to supergluing your mom’s favorite vase together after you broke her golden rule of not throwing balls around it.
After the DNA has been repaired to near-perfection, it needs to be fertilized and then implanted in the uterus of a similar species to act as a surrogate and carry the egg to term. This method has proved itself to be effective, but with very low success rates. For example, in one trial, 277 cells were infused that resulted in 29 embryos. Of these, only one made it full term, and thus, Dolly was born (Cloning Dolly). These results go to show that the cloning method is quite hazy and still needs to be worked out.
The second method, reverse engineering, utilizes a close relative of the lost species and a CRISPR-Cas9 pair. Henry Greely, a professor of genetics at Stanford university, explains “CRISPR systems. . . are fantastic for cutting out designated sequences of DNA, and they can be combined with other methods to insert specifically synthesized DNA sequences at the location of the cut” (Greely para. 19). Essentially, this pair is used to “cut and paste” the genome of the related species to best match the genome of the extinct one. One challenge this method faces is that it would require scientists to have a very good understanding of the extinct species’ genome, which could be difficult, since the species is extinct.
The final method is “breeding back”. Many scientists believe that this may be the simplest method of resurrection, as no new genome needs to be spliced together. To do this, scientists would simply find a living species similar to the one they wish to create and purposely breed it to bring out different traits one at a time. Once one trait has been established, offspring would be bred until another trait was established. This would happen over and over again until they have evolved into the desired species. This method is questionable because it wouldn’t technically be introducing an extinct species, rather it would be diverging an existing one to appear like the one in question. But just because we can do something, should we?
The possible advances in genetic engineering we could gain from this may be too good to pass up. Genetic engineering would be a big step in the right direction for humans in regards to medicine and agriculture, and have a huge impact on quality of life for people around the world. Medically, genetic engineering is believed to be the answer for preventing some genetic diseases. According to Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist and the founding director of Editing Nature at Yale University, “The advent of CRISPR gene editing and the ease and agility by which it can make specific changes to DNA hold great potential for the treatment, prevention, or elimination of . . . heritable disease such as sickle cell disease, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis” (Kofler). Advances in genetic engineering are presenting the possibility of eliminating diseases previously thought to be permentant. This would greatly improve the quality of life for millions of people who suffer from these harsh diseases. In addition to quality of life, it would also allow people to live longer than if they remained affected by the diseases, which would be a huge breakthrough in the medical field in respect to methods of curing disease.
Genetic engineering also offers great potential in regards to agriculture. As the population of the world continues to grow exponentially, food quantity starts to become an issue. Stuart Thompson, a senior lecturer in Plant Biochemistry, says that “Genetic modification can certainly be used in the fight to make crops more disease resistant” and “agriculture uses photosynthesis to convert light energy, water and carbon dioxide into food – so improving this process would increase how much food we produce” (Thompson). Genetically altering crops will make them less prone to disease, better at photosynthesis, and able to grow larger with less plant waste, resulting in higher yields and therefore, the ability to feed more people. If we want to continue to feed our ever-growing population, it is essential that we modify our crops to meet our needs. Without this, the growing population would definitely consume more than we produce, and more people would suffer from starvation. Utilizing the method of genetic engineering on animals would allow for the greatest understanding of it, and therefore, cause the greatest impacts on health and agriculture in the future.
Advances in human life are great, but they may not correlate to improvements in the animals’ lives. When artificially creating animals, a big concern should be whether or not it is also in their best interest. Gowri Koneswaran, who is HSUS’s director of animal agriculture impacts and program manager for the Farm Animal Welfare division, claims “animals used in cloning research suffer from unusually high rates of birth defects, disabilities, and premature death . . . cloned animals can suffer is extensive including: enlarged tongues, malformed faces, intestinal blockages, diabetes, shortened tendons, deformed feet, weakened immune systems, dysfunctional hearts, brains, livers, and kidneys, respiratory distress and circulatory problems” (Koneswaran). In a hurry to resurrect these animals, many may not consider what it is like for them. Once these animals are brought into the world, they have to live lives filled with terrible conditions that have many adverse effects.
These conditions cannot be comfortable or desirable and definitely cannot positively contribute to these animals’ quality of life. In addition to these conditions, many of the animals die prematurely. Scientists are creating many organisms which they know will suffer painful lives. Additionally, the surrogates are negatively affected by this. Koneswaren mentions “[surrogate mothers] suffer from reduced welfare from fetal overgrowth, repeated surgeries and injections, and pregnancy complications that have resulted in death” (Koneswaran). Not only do these mothers suffer poor pregnancies, but they also have many miscarriages or offspring that do not survive, which could contribute to metal suffering. Many surrogate mothers die carrying artificial progeny. Furthermore, once people learn that animals can be brought back to life, they can easily stop caring about conservation of currently endangered animals. When humans learn that something can be re-created, they tend to care less about the original, since it is disposable Humans many gain a lot from this experience, but the quality of these animals’ lives is poor. Maybe bringing them back has more benefits than we can see.
It was only a little mistake, really, and it is something we can fix. Humans have proved to be a very good species, too good in fact. Humans are the cause of the sixth major extinction on Earth, known as the Anthropocene extinction, which is estimated to be causing extinctions at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural. Brian Switek, a Science writer, claims “Our species has driven others to extinction, and is having such a substantial impact on global ecology that the imprint of what we’re doing today will be visible for thousands of years to come. We’re already intervening and rearranging nature” (Hirsch 87). In that, he claims that humans have already overstepped our boundaries by causing thousands of species to prematurely go extinct. We have already intervened too much and at some point, we just need to stop.
Human intervention has only proven to have a negative impact on animals, and therefore, we should not play a part in messing things up more than we already have. This creates an overall sense of uneasiness. Yes, many people truly do feel bad about causing these extinctions. There is something to be said about feeling like you have fixed something, and that is the feeling some are lunging for. So, to reverse the highly accelerated rate of extinction humans are causing, we will just artificially replace a few and that will make it all better again. Humans like to feel like they have fixed something, so bringing back some species we have caused to go extinct may bring a sense of redemption and allow us feel like that.
Doing good things makes people feel good. Doing great things may make people feel like God, and that is what many are worried about. By bringing back species that are supposed to be gone forever, humans are essentially “playing God”. Extinction is a natural phenomenon. Over the course of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year life, there have been innumerous different species to habit this planet, and as Darwin puts it, it’s a battle of the fittest. Those that are not best-suited will be beat out by something better. The answer to this problem? Just artificially undo billions of years of evolution. Although many of these extinctions were caused by humans, it is questionable that humans think playing the role of good ol’ mother nature is the right answer.
Stanley Temple, an avian ecologist and wildlife biologist, mentions “Species that have been extinct a long time have left behind a community that has moved on without them” (Temple 04:45). Once a species no longer lives somewhere, the area molds to fill the gaps. New changes arise and there may not be a suitable home for the species to move back in. When an environment evolves, it doesn’t save space for extra things to just pop in and stay. After these animals have been created, they will not have suitable places to live, and that is a problem. If they do happen to fit in somewhere, the environment and conditions will be vastly different from the last time they lived there, possibly causing them detrimental effects. Humans don’t just get to decide what goes where and when. Maybe we should stay out of it and just let nature take its course.
Although many people feel that these new, or old, animals may not have a home to go to, others argue that they will greatly benefit damaged ecosystems. George Church, a geneticist, engineer, chemist, and Harvard professor of genetics, argues that “Ecosystems that depend on ‘keystone species’ have lost the species diversity they once had because some species no longer fit. As environmental change occurs, ancient diversity may be needed again” (Church). Many ecosystems are able to thrive under just the right conditions, and sometimes a condition could be a species. Many species are keyed “keystone”, as many organisms depend on them and the ecosystem would greatly alter without them.
Bringing back keystone species would have overall positive benefits, such as habitat restoration and an enhanced diversity of the gene pool. Church gives the example of mammoths. He says that if mammoths are brought back, they could offset some of the warming in the area by preventing erosion, increasing light reflection, and allowing freezing air to reach the soil (Church). Bringing this one species back would have a net positive effect on both the area it lives and the species it lives with. By doing this, we could give the planet a slight nudge back towards a happy equilibrium. If many keystone species were brought back, many ecosystems would begin to thrive, and thus, preserve many more species from following the same path of extinction. De-extinction is the key to preventing new extinctions.
Some species may come back and just be too good. Numerous scientists worry that re-introducing resurrected species may not be good, as they could easily become invasive and have detrimental effects on others that currently live in the area. Really, there is no way of accurately predicting how a species will interact once re-introduced. The only method of finding out is to just do it. Rebecca Hirsch, author of “De-extinction: The Science of Bringing Lost Species back to life, argues “the species itself [could] be an invasive species, preying on or taking over the territory of other plants or animals and driving them to extinction” (Hirsch 87). Releasing a species which we have little to no behavior knowledge of is very dangerous. They could easily spread like wildfire over the habitat and wreak havoc on other species that have made that home by overpopulating, being too territorial and claiming the area, or consuming their new neighbors.
This would work quite effectively in taking other species out of the picture and creating the problem of more human-caused extinctions. Hirsch adds, “A revived animal might harbor a dangerous virus that scientists aren’t aware of, and the disease could be accidentally released into the world (Hirsch 85). When de-thawing a 40,000-year-old woolly mammoth, there is really no telling what viruses have been preserved along with it. Re-introduction of diseases from that long ago can be dangerous, as animals are not immune to it. It could quickly be transmitted from organisms to organism like the plague and create a mass extinction from a de-extinction, which would only contribute to the human-caused Anthropocene extinction.
We now know that extinction is no longer permanent, but no, dinosaurs will not be roaming Earth any time soon. There will not be new herds of tyrannosaurus rexes or brachiosaurier roaming the great planes. Dinosaur DNA is far too old to clone, but DNA from recently extinct species is very capable of such a feat. A more likely future holds carrier pigeons, dodo birds, and woolly mammoths. Through all of this, there are great hopes that scientists will gain a better understanding of genetic engineering, restore some habitats, and feel a sense of pride, while at the same time caring for the animals’ well-being, considering the possible consequences they may have on others, and not playing a role they were not meant for.