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Pros and cons of de-extinction

Have you heard the expression “dead as a dodo”? It refers to a bird which is now very dead – extinct, in other words. The bird once flourished on the island of Mauritius. If you go to Mauritius now, you will not be able to find a single live dodo. Hence the expression “dead as a dodo”.

We have lost so many species over the last few thousand years primarily due to human activity, including hunting and displacement of animals through human settlements. Some species have gone extinct as a result of natural activities too (dinosaurs are a case in point).

Today, science has advanced to the point where it is theoretically possible to bring back an entirely extinct species back to life – at least one or two members of each species. They even have a new term for it – de-extinction. It is said to be a matter of reassembling the extinct animal’s genome and injecting it into embryonic cells. After that, it's the simple matter of finding a surrogate.

Among other techniques are cloning and genetic engineering.

This was the premise behind the hugely popular movie Jurassic Park (which I viewed again on Blu-Ray before writing this column), in which a billionaire creates a park populated by dinosaurs brought back to life. The idea sounded revolutionary 20 years ago when the movie first hit the screens, but it is well within the realms of possibility now.


Mammoth

Leading scientists recently drew up a “wish list” of nearly 20 animals which could be brought back. Among them are: the famous Dodo, Sabre Toothed Tiger, Quagga (a zebra-like species), Carolina Parakeet, Tasmanian Tiger, Woolly Mammoth (Japanese scientists have already extracted the bone marrow from woolly mammoth remains found in Siberia to look at the DNA),Cuban

Macaw, Pyrenean Ibex (it went extinct as recently as 2001), Huia (a wattlebird), Elephant Bird (ostrich-like, but bigger), Auroch (wild cattle species), Caribbean Monk Seal, Moa (flightless bird) and Labrador Duck.

One surprising exception is the aforementioned Dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park, but it seems that today’s technology is actually not sufficient to bring them back to life.

Exciting

This is no doubt a very exciting field. Who would not like to see a living woolly mammoth or a sabre toothed tiger? Scientists would then study them at close range and work towards protecting and perpetuating the species in question. Future generations will be able to see species which were thought to have been extinct forever.

If established firmly, some extinct species may thrive again, reminding us of the famous line from Geoff Goldblum’s scientist character in Jurassic Park that “life finds a way”.

There is a healthy debate among scientists and in the media whether de-extinction should actually be done especially in the light of revelations that a small band of scientists, wealthy individuals and funding providers have established a “Revive and Restore” movement with exactly this aim in mind. They promote the project as a way to restore lost genetic diversity with its mission of ensuring “deep ecological enrichment through extinct species revival.”

Many voices are now being heard against the raising of extinct animals to life. Alice Roberts, a clinical anatomist, TV personality and professor of public engagement in science at England’s University of Birmingham has become a leading advocate of the group of scientists who oppose de-extinction, especially if only a single animal of a given species could be resurrected.

Roberts recently argued that it might not be morally right to do so. “There's something really questionable about bringing back a single mammoth. I would prefer the emphasis to be on saving existing animals under threat of extinction rather than trying to resurrect their long-extinct cousins,” Roberts has said. This viewpoint resonates well within the scientific community, which is struggling for resources to stop the extinction of endangered animals such as the Addax, Island Fox, Catarina Pupfish, Amur Leopard and the Californian Condor. If current rates of extinction continue, we could see the loss of 75 percent of vertebrate species within three centuries.

Questionable

“There's something really questionable about bringing back a single mammoth,” Roberts said. “Mammoths are herd animals and their environment no longer exists, so what are you bringing that animal back for? You're bringing it back to live in a zoo?”


Dodo

That is a very pertinent argument by any measure. A single woolly mammoth living in an air-conditioned compartment in a zoo would be a pathetic sight, even if it affords scientists an opportunity to study the animal in-depth. The particular zoo will be able to earn millions of dollars by exhibiting the animal to visitors from all over the world and by facilitating research, but ethical and moral questions will still remain.

For example, how do you label a de-extinct animal - is it a Genetically Modified Organism or an invasive species?

However, nature too works miracles even if humans do not intervene.

The Coelacanth was a species of fish thought to have been extinct for nearly 140 million years - until a fisherman caught a live one in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The 400 million year old species is now described as a “living fossil” and is once again critically endangered. Just last week, scientists in Israel discovered a live specimen of a frog species called Hula Painted Frog which was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1996.

It too has been declared a “living fossil”.

This has raised hopes that some species may be able to withstand climatic changes, other vagaries of nature - and even the destructive actions of humans - to survive and thrive in an inhospitable environment. Nevertheless, it does not mean that once-extinct species would be able to adapt well to new surroundings if they are brought back to life.

The debate on extinction and de-extinction shows no sign of stopping, with the scientific community divided over the issue. But one thing is clear - it is better and more logical to spend our time and energy on saving the species already on the brink of extinction than on bringing back dead species to life.

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