By Frances Hall
Though the word “crisis” is thrown around casually and commonly applied to regrettable haircuts and any and all acts of partisanship in Congress, it can appropriately applied to the current rate of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity, a word meant to convey the huge idea of all the different species in the word and all the differences within those species as well, is being lost at an extraordinary rate. Estimates vary wildly, but scientists generally agree that in the time it takes you to watch your favorite show on Netflix at least one and as many as ten species are gone from this Earth, never to be seen again.
Is extinction the final nail-in-the-coffin death sentence its etymology implies? If you’re willing to ignore or navigate the ethical, financial, and logistical minefield that is the attempt to reverse extinction via genetic cloning, the answer is no.
Animal cloning is a fairly established practice. The first successful attempt was in 1997. A sheep was born in Scotland, jokingly dubbed Dolly because she had been cloned from a mammary cell. However, even when your methods sound like they’re straight out of Jurassic park, things get a lot more complicated when you’re trying to apply these methods to species that are already gone. There are several methods of cloning. One involves injecting a body cell containing a complete set of DNA is injected into an egg that had its original DNA specially removed. Then, in an ideal world, the two cells fused together into an embryo which is implanted into a uterus. If the animal is already extinct, then a scientist will find as similar a uterus as possible and hope it works out. For example, due to a complete dearth of female woolly mammoths, any cloned fetuses would have to be grown in female elephants while dozens of researchers with their fingers crossed watched on.
Cloning of extinct species is far from a sure bet. An attempt to bring back the Pyrenean ibex involved 57 implantations into various species and hybrids of goats and ibex. All this effort culminated in a single clone that lived for ten minutes. If the extinct species hatches from eggs or has an incomplete genome, success becomes an even more distant goal.
Opponents of this type of cloning, or de-extinction, have some solid points. Bringing the animal back from extinction does not address the underlying issue–often habitat loss or poaching–that drove it to extinction in the first place. So it would be possible to sink in years and a small fortune into recovering an animal only to have it go extinct again shortly thereafter. Many other experts argue that de-extinction diverts resources that would be better put towards conserving the swiftly declining diversity we still have. Furthermore, an ecosystem is a vast thing: reintroducing a species that’s been gone for decades could have effects that no one predicted.
Still, the idea that a mistake you thought was permanent can be unwritten, that we could meet mammoths and dodo birds and frogs that brood in their stomachs, has its own beauty. Even if we are eons away from being creatures without flaws, knowing that we don’t need to be perfect right now is something between a curse and a comfort. As the debate continues and cloning techniques grow more elegant and advanced, this only hope for the already-gone could become an increasingly viable possibility.
Passenger Pigeon. Chester A. Reed “The Bird Book” 1915.
Dolly the Sheep. Mike Pennington.
Pyrenean Ibex. Richard Lydekker. 1898.
Tasmanian Tiger. Photographer unknown, pre-1921.