Science has marched – not steadily, but in fits and starts – toward bringing certain species back from extinction. In fact, the term “de-extinction” has now entered our 21st century lexicon.
First, let’s establish the limits of this endeavor, defined by the half-life of DNA, which stands at 521 years. It turns out that DNA deteriorates at a rather predictable pace, and that “dooms” the dream of a modern day Jurassic Park. A half-life of half a millennia does not divide well into the 60,000,000 years that have passed since Tyrannosaurus Rex enjoyed carnivorous consumption as an idle pastime.
However, despite DNA’s relatively short half life when it comes to reviving dinosaurs, DNA’s half-life does offer the opportunity to clone a multitude of species that man’s onslaught on nature has driven from planet earth over the past half a millennia. And that brings us to “Celia’s Clone.”
For thousands of years, a wild goat known as the bucardo, or Pyrenena ibex, roamed the steep slopes found high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. This magestic 200 pound animal could navigate the rocky mountain cliffs with ease, but unfortunately could not dodge bullets. And so, in a matter of a couple of centuries, the bucardo’s population had dwindled to about a dozen by the late 80s. Within a decade, the population had dropped to one, a female that researchers named Celia. A radio collar was attached to her, and nine months later Celia died when she was crushed by a tree.
Despite Celia’s demise, the viability of some of her cells was maintained. Nuclei from those cells was injected into goat cells emptied of their own nuclei. The end result, after numerous attempts, was a 4.5 pound baby clone of Celia, born on July 30, 2003. Sadly, her date of death was the same; she was doomed by a mal-formed lung.
However in the decade hence, methods of revival have advanced significantly since researchers attempted to clone Celia and revive the extinct Pyrenean ibex. There is an effort underway, for example, to have an elephant give birth to a woolly mammoth, using frozen cell nuclei extracted from a frozen woolly mammoth. The two year gestation period demands patience from researchers, and the project is still currently underway. However, smaller species, like mice, have been cloned with some success. Proponents of the research suggest efforts that are highly expensive now will be much less so as cloning methods are continually refined.
De-extinction: good plan or not?Is de-extinction immoral because those involved are playing God? On the contrary, opines one paleontologist. Michael Archer, a University of New South Wales researcher, suggests that in fact, humanity played God by causing extinctions in the first place. As a result, Archer suggests that we actually have a moral obligation to get involved in cloning extinct animals.
However, even if a species is brought back from extinction, that is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to reviving a species.
Practical ProblemsWill a revived species go back to a natural habitat, or will it just be a curiosity to gawk at in a zoo somewhere? If it is the former, we confront the reality that, in many instances, humanity not only destroyed the species, it destroyed the habitat in which it once thrived. Ironically, it may be far easier to “de-extinct” a species than to give it a proper home in the wild.
Morality & New ExtinctionsLiterally millions of unique examples of the planet’s current flora and fauna are at risk of extinction, especially as natural habitats are destroyed. In that context, does devoting inordinate amounts of attention and resources to reviving more sexy species somewhere a moral act?
Why Revive?Some researchers say, without hesitation, “Yes, bring ’em back.” Reviving extinct species expands bio-diversity, they say. Natural substances found in tropical plants, for example, supply the pharmaceutical industry with an endless stream of new treatments for various maladies.
Also, a re-introduced species could perform a vital function in its eco-system. It turns out, for example, that the grasslands that once covered much of Siberia were largely the result of wholly mammoths both breaking up the soil and fertilizing it the old-fashioned way, with their manure. Without the mammoths performing these vital functions, the soil hardened to the point that less productive mossy tundra took over.
There is also persuasive example of the Tasmanian Devil. A single gene causes a troublesome cancer tho threaten the species. If scientists can successfully engineer that gene out of the creature’s DNA, the deadly cancer can be diminished within the species, prolonging its existence.
At the end of the day, it is unlikely that cloning will be much inhibited by moral debate. As in most scientific research, if it’s possible, it will happen – it’s only a matter of time.
Those involved are inexorably attracted to the sheer inspiration of scientific “progress.”. And of course, the reality is that careers are advanced when scientific breakthroughs occur. In some instances, financial windfalls also follow. Despite failures to clone Celia, one day, the worldwide population of the bucardo is likely to go from zero to one once again; such is the nature of scientific endeavor.