By George Thurlow '73
Two years from now, scientists working at Harvard and other laboratories around the world will have perfected the process of creating a living woolly mammoth. This will be a scientific miracle, given that the last member of the species probably walked the earth 4,000 years ago.
Genetic patching and pasting into an existing Asian elephant that will create this de-extinction has caused controversy far and wide. It is the precursor to genetic patching and pasting of human beings, something that spreads fear and loathing among ethicists and biologists.
But the march toward reviving hundreds, if not thousands of species, that have gone extinct is picking up speed. At UC Santa Barbara, a cadre of biologists are pressing for a more logical and ecological approach.
Led by UCSB biologist Douglas McCauley, the group published a manifesto on how we should bring back extinct animals—based on their ability to survive in an environmentally challenged world and how they could improve the ecology of their habitats.
“I look at the machine called Life,” explained McCauley from his office in the Marine Sciences building. “I see gears missing and ask, ‘what can we do to replace those gears.’”
A handful of scientists around the world are at the forefront of exciting and dramatic work bringing back the mammoth, the passenger pigeon and even the Dodo bird. McCauley admits his own work with fellow UCSB researchers Molly Hardesty-Moore and Ben Halpern was described in some scientific circles as “boring.” That’s because McCauley and his group have laid out a strategy for the de-extinction of terrestrial creatures. (The issues of sea extinction and de-extinction are far more complex -- see Coastlines Spring 2015.)
First and foremost, species should be brought back from extinction if they disappeared a short time ago. This means there is far more possibility of success in habitats that are less changed, than ones that existed thousands of years in the past. At the same time, the DNA samples for recently lost species are of better and higher quality than DNA recovered from animals that may have been dead for thousands of years.
Second, the group calls for bringing back species that play a critical role in maintaining the ecology of a habitat. They cite the pipistrelle bat on Christmas Island. Before extinction, the bat was critical in the maintenance of insect populations.
Finally, the group wants to forget the “zoo” factor in bringing back species and instead focus on species that have a chance of becoming abundant and sustainable.
“We’re not being boring,” asserted McCauley. “The grand challenge of society will be in fighting off the sixth massive extinction (predicted as the next wave of widespread extinctions due to human impacts on the environment.)” He added, “Let’s not just create a few zoo animals.”
His co-author Halpern, the director of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, agrees. “We are offering guidelines for how to make ecological de-extinction more successful and to avoid creating ‘eco-zombies,’” he said. “If we are going to bring back species let’s not do stupid decisions that bring back species that don’t have a chance of success.”
Said McCauley, “What some are proposing to do with de-extinction will be like manufacturing a part from the engine of a Model T and trying to shove it into a Tesla.”
Our children and grandchildren may be able to see woolly mammoths in zoos in just a few years. Led by geneticist George Church, Harvard scientists are editing genetic code recovered from woolly mammoth remains found preserved in Arctic tundra.
Church is copying the genomes from extinct mammoths and pasting them into the cells of Asian elephants. (The genomes include cells that produce hair and fat.) In the lab, these cells are immortal, they don’t have to be reproduced from scratch. The next step, is to test these cells to determine how much they match woolly mammoth characteristics, like resistance to cold.
In just a few years, the nucleus of an egg cell will be removed from an Asian elephant and replaced with a woolly mammoth nucleus. The embryo will be developed in vitro and then placed inside an Asian elephant to gestate during the species’ natural two-year pregnancy.
Church says this can start as early as 2018.
An engineered embryo placed inside an Asian elephant does not mean a woolly mammoth will be born. What will be produced from this procedure will only be a close replication of the extinct species. The engineered animal may not survive. Similar efforts with the Pyrenean ibex wild mountain goat in 2003 failed when the offspring survived for only a few minutes.
But it does show just how far genetic engineering and laboratory cloning have come.
Ben Novak is a biologist working closely with the de-extinction group The Long Now Foundation. The Foundation has an extensive program for bringing back a wide range of species -- from the woolly mammoth to the Irish elk and the woolly rhinoceros. Novak says he only has to make a few genetic changes to the common band-tailed pigeon to bring back the carrier pigeon. The goal is to repopulate forests in the eastern United States with the carrier pigeon, which was critical to the environmental health of habitats.
Halpern believes the woolly mammoth will never survive in the modern environment and that the passenger pigeon is a “long shot.”
What is important is whether bringing back a species, like the passenger pigeon, will create problems for society.
“We’re going to end up changing the natural system and how we interact with it,” he said. “That’s why we need to pay attention to de-extinction.” Right now, the de-extinction scientific community is small and off most people’s radar. “But it will grow in importance.”
The work of Halpern, McCauley and their co-author Molly Hardesty-Moore is meant to begin the discussion of the impacts of de-extinction now — rather than later when “it may become a big issue,” stated Halpern.
Of great import, according to Halpern, is that the science involved in de-extinction may be used to save those many species on the edge of extinction.
One of the most well-known proponents of de-extinction is environmentalist Steward Brand. In a widely cited article in 2013 in National Geographic, he argued that the research not only will provide help in saving nearly extinct species, but that de-extinction is profound news. “That something as irreversible and final as extinction might be reversed is a stunning realization. The imagination soars.”
That kind of soaring imagination is what McCauley is championing. “Let’s not just make a few zoo animals,” he said. “Let’s do this in a more important way—fixing what is one of the grand challenges facing society and the environment.”comments powered by Disqus