- Paul Organ
- BBC International
Scientists are trying to bring some extinct animals back to life.
An American start-up company launched in 2021 says it is confident it can bring back 2 extinct species of animals within the next 5-10 years.
It may seem simple in (the movie) Jurassic Park, but it’s not that easy in real life. Moreover, not everyone is convinced that it can be done or even that it should be done.
This article attempts to explore related projects and possibilities around this topic.
What plans have been made?
American geneticist George Church and Ben Rahm, head of Colossal Biosciences, hope to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by 2027.
They also recently announced a plan to reintroduce the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, a marsupial that has been extinct since the 1930s, with help from the University of Melbourne.
How are they going to do that?
One way is reverse engineering: Scientists take stem cells from organisms with identical DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and use gene editing techniques to bring extinct organisms back to life.
The closest species to mammoths is the Asian elephant.
To obtain thylacine DNA, the team works with a sample of a thylacine puppy at the Melbourne Museum, which is removed from its mother’s pouch and preserved in alcohol.
Why is it so difficult?
One of the biggest hurdles scientists face is finding DNA that is complete enough to replicate as closely and accurately as possible to the original DNA.
But the problem is that when animals die, their DNA begins to break down, breaking up into smaller strands.
Getting them back in the right order is a challenge.
What are the benefits of “de-extinction”?
Lam, co-founder of Giant Biosciences, believes that bringing some extinct animals back to life can help preserve biodiversity, restore degraded ecosystems, and reverse the damage humans have caused in the past.
“Mammoths and thylacines play important roles in their environment. Due to the ecological gap created by the absence of these species, the restoration of both species has the potential to positively impact degraded ecosystems,” he said.
Lam also believes their research can advance the science of preventing the extinction of other species.
He explained, “The Tasmanian devil (also known as the Tasmanian devil) can give birth to 20 to 30 young, but only a few survive. This can be very helpful for Tasmanian devil conservationists.”
What are the risks?
Critics such as Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum, say that if gene-edited embryos are implanted into surrogate elephants, the process of creating baby mammoths could endanger other animals.
“The surrogate elephant has to be pregnant for 22 months before she gives birth,” Herridge said, “and it’s dangerous for the mother and carrying another species. It’s quite an invasive process.”
“There can also be some serious ethical issues, basically using a surrogate mother is scary. (Hopefully) that won’t happen because artificial wombs can’t be used,” she said.
But Ram said his company has already thought about it: “In addition to the ‘artificial womb’ (x-womb) team, we have assembled an entire livestock team specifically built for surrogacy.”
Is it ethical?
Some critics see the idea of biological resurrection as unfair because no one knows the implications of bringing back a species like the mammoth — which has been extinct from Earth for more than 4,000 years. There is
Another question is, if the technology proves to work, when do scientists stop?
Herridge says it’s important to understand that any animal created this way won’t be an exact copy of the previous animal.
“There is no such thing as biological resurrection,” she said. “What’s going to happen is that a new thing is created. Once an organism goes extinct, it’s gone, it’s gone forever, it’s gone, and all that’s available is just an imitation.”
But Lam said it was important to correct humanity’s mistakes: “We have the resources to make biological resurrection a reality and undo the damage humans have done.”
With the funding and science behind this latest project, we may be closer than ever to witnessing the return of extinct species.
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