The Uncertain Future of De-Extinction

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Photo Courtesy of Melbourne Museum

 

The conclusion of a species on this planet is a concept that is hard to grasp. It isn’t just the end of life of an individual, but the collective loss of all individuals of a group that has taken around 3 billion years to get to that point – only to disappear, leaving just their bones behind. The planet has seen its fair share of disasters to populations and species since life took its first breathe. Life has found a way around everything the universe could throw at it, ice ages, meteors, disease and non-anthropogenic climate change.

We are in a new era known as the anthropocene. It is not defined by the rise of CO2 in the air or ocean, and not the changes in the geography, but rather by the monumental scale in which animals are going extinct.

This year we saw the loss of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan. Before him in 2012 there was Lonesome George, the last saddleback tortoise. In Australia the last known Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. Sadly the list just goes on and on.  

Mankind saw fit to exploit and destroy these species for our own benefit, so should we bring them back?

Lonesome George was a beacon for conservationists around the world.  His death was a reminder of the impacts humans can have on the natural world.  

Attempts have been made to resurrect extinct species. In 2003 a kid was born. She was of a member of an extinct species of Pyrenea ibex colloquially known as the bucardo. The cellular information of the last remaining bucardo (Celia) was collected after her death in the wild. Her genes where implanted into the ova of 57 goats who acted as surrogate mothers in the attempt to clone Celia. Only one surrogate gave birth to Celia’s clone. The bucardo existed once more for only 10 minutes.

 

With the years that have gone by, there have been advances in technology and planning to bring back these deceased species. Even those that are thought to have gone naturally, such as the wooly mammoth. The Russian government has even seen interest in bringing back mammoths for the positive environmental impact they can have in Siberia.  Since the extinction of mammoths the ancient seas of grass of Siberia where replaced with barrens of lichens and moss.  The return of the mammoths would result in the terraforming of the land into a more desirable environment.  

Photo Courtesy of Melbourne Museum

Here in Australia, the de-extinction of the Thylacine is a very likely scenario. Andrew Pask at the university of Melbourne told National Geographic: “It would be at least a decade before we have the technologies to really start to pursue de-extinction. But you never know how fast some of these technologies will develop.”

 

There are no easy answers when it comes to bringing back these species, and there are plenty of unanswered questions. There is honor in trying to fix the errors and mistakes of mankind. But any flaw in the recreation of the genetic code of an extinct animal can cause a very painful and short life for others, as it did with Celia.

 

There are many questions that beg to be asked and answered. If we can bring them back, what’s stopping us from wiping out more species? Can we truly make up for our mistakes by bringing these species back to life? Will the de-extinct go back to the wild, or will they become slaves for entertainment purposes? One thing is for certain; humanity is rapidly approaching an era where extinction isn’t permanent.

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