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The revival of an extinct species is no longer a fantasy. But is it a good idea?By Carl Zimmer
Photograph by Robb Kendrick
On July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only to watch it become extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. The bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) 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.
Then came the guns. Hunters drove down the bucardo population over several centuries. In 1989 Spanish scientists did a survey and concluded that there were only a dozen or so individuals left. Ten years later a single bucardo remained: a female nicknamed Celia. A team from the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, led by wildlife veterinarian Alberto Fernández-Arias, caught the animal in a trap, clipped a radio collar around her neck, and released her back into the wild. Nine months later the radio collar let out a long, steady beep: the signal that Celia had died. They found her crushed beneath a fallen tree. With her death, the bucardo became officially extinct.
But Celia’s cells lived on, preserved in labs in Zaragoza and Madrid. Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. After 57 implantations, only seven animals had become pregnant. And of those seven pregnancies, six ended in miscarriages. But one mother—a hybrid between a Spanish ibex and a goat—carried a clone of Celia to term. Folch and his colleagues performed a cesarean section and delivered the 4.5-pound clone. As Fernández-Arias held the newborn bucardo in his arms, he could see that she was struggling to take in air, her tongue jutting grotesquely out of her mouth. Despite the efforts to help her breathe, after a mere ten minutes Celia’s clone died. A necropsy later revealed that one of her lungs had grown a gigantic extra lobe as solid as a piece of liver. There was nothing anyone could have done.
The dodo and the great auk, the thylacine and the Chinese river dolphin, the passenger pigeon and the imperial woodpecker—the bucardo is only one in the long list of animals humans have driven extinct, sometimes deliberately. And with many more species now endangered, the bucardo will have much more company in the years to come. Fernández-Arias belongs to a small but passionate group of researchers who believe that cloning can help reverse that trend.
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.”
In Jurassic Park dinosaurs are resurrected for their entertainment value. The disastrous consequences that follow have cast a shadow over the notion of de-extinction, at least in the popular imagination. But people tend to forget that Jurassic Park was pure fantasy. In reality the only species we can hope to revive now are those that died within the past few tens of thousands of years and left behind remains that harbor intact cells or, at the very least, enough ancient DNA to reconstruct the creature’s genome. Because of the natural rates of decay, we can never hope to retrieve the full genome of Tyrannosaurus rex, which vanished about 65 million years ago. The species theoretically capable of being revived all disappeared while humanity was rapidly climbing toward world domination. And especially in recent years we humans were the ones who wiped them out, by hunting them, destroying their habitats, or spreading diseases. This suggests another reason for bringing them back.
“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.”
Other scientists who favor de-extinction argue that there will be concrete benefits. Biological diversity is a storehouse of natural invention. Most pharmaceutical drugs, for example, were not invented from scratch—they were derived from natural compounds found in wild plant species, which are also vulnerable to extinction. Some extinct animals also performed vital services in their ecosystems, which might benefit from their return. Siberia, for example, was home 12,000 years ago to mammoths and other big grazing mammals. Back then, the landscape was not moss-dominated tundra but grassy steppes. Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha, has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra.
In recent years Zimov has tried to turn back time on the tundra by bringing horses, muskoxen, and other big mammals to a region of Siberia he calls Pleistocene Park. And he would be happy to have woolly mammoths roam free there. “But only my grandchildren will see them,” he says. “A mouse breeds very fast. Mammoths breed very slow. Be prepared to wait.”
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Carl Zimmer - Is Revival of an Extinct Species a Good Idea?
This article at the National Geographic site, from science writer Carl Zimmer, examines our ability to revive extinct species, and whether or not that is really a good idea - or (I'm thinking) not. Fortunately, even under the best conditions, we are still many years away from implementing this technology.