The notion of bringing back the extinct species to life, also known as de-extinction, has hovered at the boundary between reality and fantasy for more than 20 years now. All of us remember the fantasy created by the Jurassic Park movie series, where scientists found the DNA of dinosaurs and use that to resurrect prehistoric monsters. This story captured the imagination of millions of fans and there is also some reasonable truth to the thought. However, the science of de-extinction still lags far behind from the fantasies. So far, we have only been able to bring back one extinct species.

The revival of Pyrenean Ibex

In 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists tried to bring back the Pyrenean Ibex {A Large Mountain Goat}, which officially went extinct when a falling tree crushed the last one in 1999, the scientists were able to preserve its cells, then injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA. Then implanted the eggs into surrogate mothers after 57 implantations, only seven animals became pregnant. Of these seven pregnancies, six resulted in miscarriages, but one mother carried a clone to term. Sadly, the clone had an over sized growth of its lungs. It suffocated ten minutes after it was born. So the Pyrenean Ibex was de-extinct for a total of ten minutes.

Now, over 15 years later, the science of cloning has become mainstream. You can clone your dog for a price of some hundred thousand dollars, something that several celebrities do. We are becoming closer and closer to re-engineer lost species like The Mammoth with new gene editing techniques. Rather than cloning, scientists will directly edit DNA, like editing the code of a website to give us whatever features we desire. Everything has a genetic sequence and editing the sequence changes the physical characteristics. Gene-editing is so precise that scientists are able to control every feature of an extinct species from right down to the tusk length, fur color and ear size in the example of a Mammoth.

The Questions

So, potentially we could edit the DNA of a chicken to form a genetically modified Tyrannosaurus rex chicken hybrid. We all know that we have the technology to bring a number of these species back from extinction. But the most important question is: Should we..? Imagine a future where Saber-toothed tigers, Giant sloths and Woolly rhinoceros roam the plains again, and wouldn’t it be ethical to bring back all of those species that went extinct at the hands of mankind..? Like the Chinese river dolphin or the Tasmanian tiger.

While it is fun to fantasize about reviving extinct species, there is one question that has to be answered before pursuing this experiment, Why..? Why bring back these species..? Is it for our own personal entertainment..? Is it to reverse some type of guilt we feel..? or is it to repair the Earth’s damaged ecosystems..? The foremost logical thinking in favor of de-extinction is to bring back biodiversity to ecosystems that humans have disrupted.

A hundred thousand years ago, the speed of extinction was around one species each month. But today, 100 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals become extinct every 24 hours. We are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and it is happening 80% quicker than it was ever happened before.

If you get into an environment and remove all the apex predators, the prey explodes, the grass gets eaten down and everything collapses. In nature, these changes occur over many generations, but humans are causing dramatic changes more rapidly than nature can adapt. Using de-extinction to repair ecosystems can be like replacing a missing piece of a puzzle. This could mean bringing back recently extinct species. Species that have died off within the last hundred years or so, in an effort to revive nature’s balance. So it wouldn’t add up to bring back a Saber-tooth tiger or a Megalodon, but it might be worthwhile to bring back the passenger pigeon or the dodo.

Fixing the Ecosystem

Humans are creating voids within the ecosystem and de-extinction of species may be the key to refilling those voids, although we have yet to bring back an extinct species, we have got solid evidence that ecosystems are fixable. An excellent example of ecosystem repair is what happened on the Channel Islands, off of the coast of California USA.

In the 1800’s, settlers brought pigs to the island, the pig population exploded and destroyed the habitat of the Native Fox, which was the top predator on the island, then during World War II, The United States polluted its oceans by producing chemicals and releasing them in the waters. These chemicals contaminated the fish and eventually killed off the Native Bald-Eagles that preyed on the fish, once the bald eagles were gone, smaller Golden-Eagles invaded the Channel Islands to hunt the pigs and foxes, by 1990 there were only 12 foxes left on the islands.

Conservationists had to step in, first by cleaning the oceans, then by getting rid of the pigs and golden-eagles, then reintroducing bald-eagles to keep the golden-eagles away. So finally, the fox population could return. Today the native plants and animals are once again thriving on the channel islands. Without these conservation efforts, the island would have been reduced to just a barren wasteland. We have an infamous example of this with the legend of Easter Island, where the ruin of a remote paradise caused the complete human population to self-destruct and to total extinction.

Conclusion

If we don’t intervene in the current pattern of habitat destruction, we could become like the inhabitants of Easter Island, fighting over the last remaining resources until we all disappear. De-extinction may be one of the ways we can reverse this downward trend, but it will take careful research to ensure we are adding the right pieces to the puzzle. Because the last thing we want right now is to spend billions of dollars just to bring back species and watch it go extinct again. In any case, we are still long ways away from seeing a wild herd of woolly mammoths. But the question remains. WHY..? must be answered now.

Learn more here: De-extinction

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