The Report

We have the ability to 'de-extinct' animals. Should we?

We have the ability to 'de-extinct' animals. Should we?

Posting in Science | From Issue 16 April 21 & 28, 2014

If we caused species to go extinct, some say we have an obligation to try to revive them. But that could have unintended consequences.

The pyrenean ibex, a type of mountain goat also called a bucardo, went extinct in 2000. But for the first time in history, the species’ tale didn’t end there. A couple years later, 57 mountain goats were implanted with bucardo embryos created with the same technology that produced the first clone, Dolly. Just one gave birth to a bucardo with a lung deformity. It died after a few minutes, during which it gasped for air. 

Depending on how you define the concept, this was the first time that a species was "de-extincted" — or at least the first noteworthy attempt. While the term sounds straight out of sci-fi, this ultimate act of playing God will soon become a more common phenomenon. In addition to cloning, two other technologies could allow us to de-extinct animals within the next several years: back-breeding, the process of selectively breeding a close living relative of an extinct species for the characteristics of the extinct one; or for species for which we do not have genetic material, genetic engineering, which requires sequencing the species’ genome, and then editing sections of the genetic code of related living species with that synthesized DNA. In fact, scientists are already working on resurrecting the passenger pigeon, a type of wild ox called the aurochs, the heath hen and a type of Australian frog that gave birth through its mouth.

In other words, scientists are not debating whether or not we should de-extinct animals. For them, it’s a matter of how and which species we will select. But all this fervor is generating a lot of heavy questions.

“The idea that we’re taking a very direct hand in what feels like creating life taps into — even if you’re not strongly religious — all sorts of moral, ethical issues. Do we have the knowledge to do that? Do we have some kind of right to do that? There are some deep veins of unease that these kinds of things trigger,” says Philip Seddon, a zoologist at New Zealand’s University of Otago, who created a 10-point checklist for examining which species are optimal candidates for de-extinction. 

The major concerns fall into five categories, says Hank Greely, a Stanford law professor and director of its Center for Law and the Biosciences: animal welfare, moral, health, environmental and political. 

As to animal welfare, could de-extinction cause suffering for both gestational mothers and for any animals produced, such as that bucardo? “De-extinction is not worth it if you purchase it with the suffering of tens of thousands of animals,” Greely says.

On moral grounds, some people may object that de-extincting species is playing God and that extinct species became so for a reason. (Though Greely notes that humans have been playing God since our hunter-gatherer days.) 

Potential health and environmental risks also give pause: Resurrected species could become vectors for disease or invasive, disrupting ecosystems or causing other species to go extinct. 

But Greely says the biggest consequences of de-extinction could be political: “The biggest argument for the Endangered Species Act is: ‘Extinction is forever.’ And de-extinction threatens to overturn that,” he says. It could be the perfect vehicle for the many political groups looking to kill the Endangered Species Act.

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons to pursue this brave, new science. “[These arguments] come down to the idea that, firstly, for things that have gone extinct on our watch, we have a moral obligation to try and bring them back,” Seddon says. He adds that developing de-extincting technologies could further human health and reproductive science. Plus, resurrected species could again play crucial roles in ecosystems, making them more resilient, increasing biodiversity and producing more ecosystem services to human benefit. 

For Greely, one of the most compelling reasons to de-extinct species is an emotional one. “I think the biggest reason to bring back extinct species is that it would be, if I’m trying to be serious and sober, awes—" here, he stops and catches himself before saying "awesome" — "it would cause feelings of awe. And if I’m being more straightforward and candid, it would be seriously cool…. That’s a good thing in and of itself — for humans to experience awe, amazement, interest in nature, and I think it has good possible consequences in making people interested in biology, nature and conservation biology, in particular.”

But those attempting de-extinction face extreme challenges: While producing one surviving de-extincted individual would be an achievement in itself, creating a viable, genetically diverse population that could exist in the wild rather than in a zoo is an even more distant dream. 

So some ecologists propose a third way of applying the new technology that conservation groups, who are eyeing it suspiciously, could embrace: Use de-extinction techniques to save already endangered species. 

Kate Jones, ecologist and conservationist at University College London, says, “It would be better to use these techniques to help species with very, very small populations, like tens of individuals. I think it would be better, and much easier, to use them on those species to create clones, increase genetic diversity, or help them gain resistance to pathogens rather than to de-extinct something and put it into a habitat already threatened with anthropogenic stressors.” Admitting that this method has one problem — “you’d lose the excitement or coolness or wow factor” — Jones suggests that it would be cheaper, and would also turn around the wary conservation community. 

Greely agrees that applying de-extinction techniques in this way could sidestep the thorny issues that the idea raises, but it wouldn’t stop some from pursuing the thrill of resurrecting a live species. When that happens, he advises that scientists pursue species that could provide environmental benefits and that people find charismatic: “A lot of birders would love to see more passenger pigeons, but most people would say, ‘We don’t have enough pigeons already?’”

Photo: A wooly mammoth display in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. (Flying Puffin/Wikimedia Commons)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure