De-extinction: Resurrecting Lost Species

A hot topic in biology is the idea that we could resurrect extinct species.  Immediately, most people start to think about Jurassic Park and having a dodo as a pet.  Studying the science and ethics of this type of research can help shape students’ attitudes toward ecology and preservation efforts.

One of the major movements in ecology over the past century has been the preservation of species and their habitats.  In the 60’s and 70’s, the U.S. Congress passed acts to classify species as threatened, endangered, and extinct, which offered specific legal protections.  Many species have been brought back from the edge of extinction through these efforts, such as the bald eagle and grizzly bear.

Image from:  Wikipedia

Image from: Wikipedia

However, these efforts have fallen short for many species including the Pyrenean ibex and the Western black rhinoceros.  Classic examples of species that have been hunted to extinction in the past hundred years are the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), and the passenger pigeon.  Worse still, habitat destruction and global warming currently threaten much of the world’s biodiversity.

Advances in biotechnology may offer a new hope for resurrecting extinct species.  In this first TED Talk, Stewart Brand describes different methods for bringing animals back from the dead.

Some projects use techniques similar to those used to clone Dolly the sheep.  Others try to back-breed extant (living), related species to re-create the lost organisms.  Brand shares many of the ideas that biologists are currently testing.

Similarly, in the following TED Talk, Michael Archer shares his person experiences in trying to resurrect two (currently) extinct species – the gastric brooding grog and the thylacine.  His important successes on the way to bringing these species back make these ideas seem even more real and possible in our lifetimes.

One question that arises from these videos is what will happen to these species once they’ve returned.  Will they act the same as their ancestors if they have no parents to teach them?  If they exhibit the DNA but not the behaviors of the original animal, does that mean they are a different species altogether?  There are no easy answers to these questions, which can make them good fodder for a classroom discussion or a debate.

Another question harkens back to ecology – what impact would reintroducing these species have on their habitats?  While the removal of these species would have profoundly impacted their ecosystems, placing the species back in could also have negative effects.  After students have seen one or both of the previous videos, this last TED Talk by George Monbiot about this very topic can be a natural extension of the conversation.

According to Monbiot, returning these species could also have beneficial effects and lead to a more balanced ecosystem.  Much will depend on the particular species and the context in which it lived, including how it obtained food, what predators it had, and what other species benefited from its existence.

This entire conversation may seem like science fiction, but it is quickly becoming science fact.  Recently extinct species may be revived first, depending on the availability of high-quality frozen tissues.  As our ability to manipulate genomes improves, we could potentially resurrect species from nothing more than their genetic sequence.  Many articles have been published recently about hominid genomes such as Neanderthals.  Even if we did not have viable cell samples from these species, we could eventually see our evolutionary cousins on exhibit at the local zoo.

Work such as this has important ethical questions that students should consider.  Why should we develop these tools and resurrect species?  By that same token, why should we spend time and money to help endangered species?

If you start reviving species, which ones should receive priority?  An idea for an assignment would be to ask students to identify one or a few species that they believe would be important to bring back and to justify their choices.  You may also ask them to consider the difficulty of resurrection in their choices.  A real-life Jurassic Park would be an amazing experience, but it would be extremely difficult to obtain useful biological samples from 65 million-year-old fossilized bones.

What should we do with the species once they have come back?  Should there be an ultimate goal, such as reintroduction into the wild?  Or is anything possible, including zoos, domestication for agriculture, keeping as pets, hybridizing with other species, etc.?

Resurrecting extinct species has the promise of righting some of mankind’s destructive past and helping to preserve biodiversity.  Students can apply their knowledge of biological techniques, genetics, and cell biology to these complex issues.  The real world context should also motivate them to generate ideas, formulate opinions, and start to care about matters of ecology.

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