Inside the controversial plan to bring extinct animals back to life

Inside the controversial plan to bring extinct animals back to life

An artistic drawing of woolly mammoths on a frozen landscape.  Scientists now claim they can resurrect long-dead species (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

An artistic drawing of woolly mammoths on a frozen landscape. Scientists now claim they can resurrect long-dead species (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

Around 2000 BC, around the time the Egyptian pharaoh Mentuhotep was forming the Middle Kingdom, a woolly mammoth died on a remote island in present-day Siberia.

This was no ordinary mammoth, however: this was the last mammoth that ever lived. With his death, the species would descend from the irreversible river Styx, in danger of extinction, never to be seen again outside the underworld.

Or maybe not.

A team of scientists with biotech company Colossal, founded in part by Harvard geneticist George Church and backed by investors like the Winklevoss twins and actor Chris Hemsworth, now claim they can resurrect the woolly mammoth, bringing the giants back to the tundra for the first time in 4000 years.

The mammoth is not alone either. Colossal also announced plans to revive the thylacine, an extinct Australian carnivore, and other scientists are attempting to revive species such as the carrier pigeon, a once legendary bird of North America, in a process some call “extinction. “.

Proponents argue that de-extinction can restore long-lost species to their legitimate and important places in the ecosystem and perhaps undo some of the damage that extinction has inflicted on the natural world.

But de-extinction skeptics wonder what kind of animals could really create this technology and whether resurrection of the species could create new problems for the world’s still living wildlife.

“I’m not convinced it’s a good idea, extinction,” says Tom Gilbert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen. The independent.

“But I’m very fascinated, at least, by what could be done.”

In Jurassic Parkscientists sequenced dinosaur DNA collected from long-dead mosquitoes, using that reconstructed genetic code to hatch a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

There are some plot holes in that version of de-extinction, mainly that DNA breaks down quite quickly, so there isn’t much to sequence from 65 million-year-old fossils.

With something like a woolly mammoth, however, that concept is a little less far-fetched. Because mammoths lived relatively recently – and in the cold, freezing north – some specimens have been preserved, buried underground in the depths of the tundra, keeping parts of the species’ DNA intact.

As a result, scientists can sequence a good amount, if not all, of the mammoth genome. The colossal CEO Ben Lamm says so The independent that the company expects to have about 90% of the woolly mammoth genome.

The company plans to use cells from living Asian elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relative, as a base model to try to recreate some of the mammoth’s core traits, such as wiry hair and small ears, Lamm says.

Turning a cell into a mammoth would require more than just changing a few genes, however: you’d have to turn that cell into a living, breathing, many-ton animal. So Mr. Lamm says the company’s scientists are researching everything from stem cells and cell engineering to embryo development and animal husbandry.

But why create a mammoth in the first place? One reason, according to the company, is the climate crisis.

The permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in the far north of the tundra contains one ton of carbon. But as the world warms from all the carbon humans have dumped into the atmosphere, that permafrost is melting, potentially releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere and creating a dangerous warming feedback loop.

Colossal says that if mammoths were reintroduced into the landscape, all their trampling could transform the tundra from forests and wetlands to grasslands. Because grasslands are lighter in color than forests and wetlands, the theory is that the soil would absorb less sunlight, helping to keep the permafrost and any stored carbon buried underground cold.

Colossal also plans to resurrect the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, an extinct carnivore seen here in captivity around 1930 (Getty Images)

Colossal also plans to resurrect the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, an extinct carnivore seen here in captivity around 1930 (Getty Images)

Ecological restoration is also the goal of Revive and Restore, a non-profit organization that aims to revive the carrier pigeon, a North American bird hunted to extinction in the early 20th century.

The carrier pigeon was “the chief engineer of the forest ecosystem of eastern North America,” says Ben Novak, chief scientist for Revive and Restore. The independent.

The group says the carrier pigeon – which once gathered in flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds, dominating the landscapes of eastern North America in deafening and endless hordes – used to disturb forests enough to need to regrow over time. At each stage of that regrowth there were niches for wildlife such as insects, mammals, and other birds.

There are many steps that need to be done correctly for these plans to work. For one, these scientists would have to successfully create a healthy, viable animal that resembles a carrier pigeon or a mammoth using gene editing and cloning. Hence, they should successfully release enough of them into the wild, and the animals should act as intended to achieve the ecological benefits the teams are hoping for.

But there are also more conceptual questions about de-extinction. Since scientists will likely never sequence the mammoth’s genome – parts of it will likely be lost forever in history – these animals may never be exact replicas of ancient beasts, no matter how well gene editing and cloning.

Mr. Lamm acknowledges that the company is not trying to create duplicates of extinct animals. “We are not cloning mammoths, we are not making exact copies of mammoths or exact copies of thylacines,” he says. Instead, he says, they are creating “functional mammoths” – animals that will occupy the same ecological space that mammoths once occupied.

Success depends on your definition of “de-extinction,” says Dr. Gilbert.

“If your definition is to make a furry elephant and keep it in a zoo, and that’s what you’re doing, and that’s what you do, it’s a hit, right?” says Dr. Gilbert. “But that’s not the same as making a fully functional mammoth.”

Dr. Gilbert says the most interesting part of de-extinction to him is the research it is based on. By taking elephant cells and trying to create a mammoth, scientists are essentially trying to turn one animal into another animal, he notes – a concept in itself wild.

Some de-extinction projects don’t even use genetic engineering. A project in South Africa, for example, is trying to recreate the quagga – a type of zebra hunted to oblivion in the 19th century – by selectively breeding other zebras to create an animal that resembles the quagga.

“If it looks like a carrier pigeon, it acts like a carrier pigeon, you know – it’s a carrier pigeon,” says Novak, referring to the old duck saw.

The carrier pigeon gathered in huge flocks, dominating the skies of North America before being hunted to extinction (Getty Images)

The carrier pigeon gathered in huge flocks, dominating the skies of North America before being hunted to extinction (Getty Images)

“But, of course, there are 300 types of ducks in the world. And the geese look like ducks and they are not ducks, ”Novak adds. “We know there is a subtlety to this, we will always know that the new carrier pigeons are not the original carrier pigeons.”

Yet from an ecological perspective, this distinction doesn’t matter, he says.

“If it works and works well in the ecosystem, I am happy to say that we have recreated the carrier pigeon,” says Novak.

Dr Gilbert also points out that if the public believes extinct species can simply be resurrected, this could create problems for currently endangered but not yet extinct species.

Suppose a mining company wanted to excavate a huge section of the Amazon rainforest, he suggests. Companies are often prevented from tearing up such an ecosystem because people understand that many species will go extinct if we destroy their habitats, she adds.

If people think we can flip a switch and bring animals back from the dead, they may be less motivated by these concerns, Dr. Gilbert speculates.

This could be especially true if people did not understand that “de-extinction” – at least in its current form – is extremely time-consuming and costly and has yet to be successful for any singular species, let alone the thousands of species. that you could lose by cutting down the rainforest.

Mr. Lamm said this was more of an “education problem”. He also notes that some of Colossal’s research, including things like in vitro fertilization and disease treatments in elephants, could be applied to modern animals.

And the same argument about public perception could be made for animals kept in captivity, Novak argues. “It’s literally the most negligible concern of all this,” he says.

In another sense, Novak says, that argument is just a continuation of the challenge that wildlife conservationists have faced for decades.

“De-extinction is the extension of something conservation has been doing for nearly 200 years,” he says.

In ecosystems around the world, conservationists have restored long-lost wildlife to the ecosystem, such as wolves in Yellowstone National Park or beavers in Europe. The only difference is that none of these species had been entirely extinct – and it remains to be seen if we can make that leap.

“For me, it has always been a discipline oriented towards ecological conservation and restoration,” he says. “And it will stay that way for the rest of my life.”

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