Is It Worthwhile to Bring Extinct Species Back to Life?
As of last week, Australia’s gastric-breeding frog, declared extinct in 1983, lives again. A team of Australian scientists who are part of the aptly named Lazarus Project has announced that it has successfully “revived and reactivated” the genome of Rheobatrachus silus using cell nuclei from tissues that had been frozen since the 1970s. The woolly mammoth and the dodo could be the next candidates for de-extinction.
In Dubai, scientists have also had success developing a technique that could be used to bring back extinct species to life. These researchers successfully engineered a duck who fathered a chicken by injecting a male duck embryo with cells from chickens that produce gametes (sperm or eggs). After the duck became sexually mature, it produced chicken reproductive cells and was able to breed with a hen — and to father a chick. According to Treehugger, the scientists are hoping that that “one day chickens could be modified with DNA from other bird types, like eagles or songbirds, to breed offspring belonging to a species not their own — including those previously wiped out of existence.
But should we be focusing our resources on developing such techniques to clone extinct species and, a la Jurassic Park, bring animals back to life who’ve long disappeared from the face of the earth?
The Australian scientists used a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer to implant the nuclei of the extinct frog into those of a distantly related species, the great barred frog (Mixophyes fasciolatus). Some of these eggs grew into the early embryo stage. They did not live for more than a few days but, as Professor Mike Archer, of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, says, “We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step.”
Archer has had a long-time interest in cloning another extinct Australian species, the Austrlaian thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, and described his efforts to do so at a TEDxDeExtinction event in Washington, D.C., on March 15. More efforts to clone extinct species are in the works. “We’re increasingly confident that the hurdles ahead are technological and not biological and that we will succeed,” Archer says, noting that the technology he’s helped to create as showing “great promise .. as a conservation tool when hundreds of the world’s amphibian species are in catastrophic decline.”
The Ethics of De-extinction
The cloning of extinct species raises “ethical, moral and technical questions.” By “de-extincting” animals that have died out, humans are indeed “playing God.” Is cloning an extinct species the same thing as actually bringing it back to life? Or is it instead about creating a new species that looks exactly like the old one? As the scientists and conservationists participating in the TEDxDeExtinction event themselves noted, “is the genome the species?”
That is, just because the embryos the Australian scientists created had the same genetic make-up as the gastric-breeding frog, they are not necessarily just the same as those frogs who were born in nature. Nurture also plays a role in the development of animals. As the researchers point out, “if California condors had gone extinct, it’s unclear if they could be brought back fully, because the young rely on parental training.”
As we debate whether to develop such techniques or to focus resources on preserving the habitats of threatened and endangered species from tigers to monkeys to polar bears, consider this scenario: if the human race was wiped out and human children were created from freeze-dried cells raised by a species other than humans, they might be “human” in their genetics and appearance only.
What we should be focusing on is protecting the ecosystems of threatened wildlife, halting deforestation, preserving water supplies and doing all we can do to fight climate change, to keep so many species (like the gastric-breeding frog, who went extinct due to habitat loss) from disappearing in the first place.
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