Bringing Back the Dead: Using Cloning to Resurrect Extinct Species

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Image Credits:

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.

Madagascar Periwinkles: The Flower of Death and Life

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Devilal

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Devilal

An ornamental pink flower, rights of indigenous residents, and conservation of biodiversity seem like phrases drawn randomly for a distinctly grim improv skit. The thread that draws them together is a story decades in the making, a line drawn between a desperate hunched parent and environmental issues that will determine whether the earth is any condition for creatures like us to live on. The plant that triggered this is at first unassuming. It’s pretty enough, pink or white, with five propeller blade petals attached to tube and dark green leaves clinging opposite each other up a slender stem. This plant catalyzed the medical discover that turned the children’s leukemia ward from a place with nearly all of the patients bleeding out within months to a largely outpatient care center with a 95 percent survival rate.

This flower is native to Madagascar but has been naturalized to many other tropical and subtropical areas. It has many names: The rosy periwinkle in several English-speaking countries, Shameless Maria in India, and, in Italy, The Flower of Death. The very quality that makes the flower so precious for relieving human suffering also makes it incredibly poisonous. It is widely considered fatal in anything but the smallest of doses.

Madagascar periwinkle fruit and seeds. Image courtesy of Museum of Toulouse.

Madagascar periwinkle fruit and seeds. Image courtesy of Museum of Toulouse.

Dr. Clark Noble, a Canada native, spent 1952 treating patients in Jamaica. He noticed that his patients would use leaves from this tiny flower to control blood sugar levels when insulin was unavailable, a sadly common problem. Since he was no longer a research doctor, he mailed 25 leaves from the plant to his brother, Dr. Robert Noble. Research showed that the leaves seemed to have no effect on blood sugar levels but had an unexpected effect: it inhibited white blood cell counts. In 1958 the more domestic Noble joined a research team that successfully isolated alkaloids (a class of plant-extracted compounds containing both nitrogen and carbon) and distilled them into a compound known as Vinblastine. When the drug entered clinical trials on cancer patients, the results, especially on childhood leukemia patients, were dramatic. Between Vinblastine and vincristine, another periwinkle extract, the odds of surviving the disease skyrocketed from 10 percent (slightly higher than the odds of surviving a gunshot to the head) to a staggering 95 percent.

Slide of chronic leukemia cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Erhabor Osaro

Slide of chronic leukemia cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Erhabor Osaro

This was nothing short of a godsend for the afflicted. However, it was also the best possible news for the bottom line of pharmaceutical companies. Worldwide sales are estimated to be worth over 100 million dollars annually today. Furthermore, stories like this one have prompted organizations such as the National Cancer Institute and many pharmaceutical companies to collect hundreds of thousands of samples of plants from many regions of the world.

Sadly, the money from these discoveries almost never makes it back to the community, often incredibly impoverished if tight-knit communities. Even worse, these tribes are depending on these plants for the only medicine they have reliable access to. When Western demand for that plant increases, it can limit the access the locals have to their plants. This situation has led to many of complicated ethical decisions, such as who owns a plant and how far we’re willing to go to ensure that medical progress, often unavailable in developing countries, continues. Some pharmaceutical companies have taken steps to reinvest in these communities. Many others have continued to focus on exclusively lucrative practices in true mustache-twirling supervillian style, despite pressure to do otherwise.

There are many lessons one might take from this kaleidoscope of a tale: That all life ought to be preserved, both for its own sake and on the distant but not impossible chance that a miracle lurks among its stems. Or perhaps that how we treat people who have no power to oppose us defines who exactly we are far more than what we do with what we’ve stolen from them. Or even that every avenue of inquiry should be pursued to its finish, just in case something beautiful and unimagined lies at the end.

Image courtesy of Tom Rulkens.

Image courtesy of Tom Rulkens.

 

Living with Saltwater Crocodiles

Photo courtesy of Matt Clancy

Photo courtesy of Matt Clancy

Saltwater crocodiles are world-class hunters but less than enchanting neighbors. This lack of sociability drove the species close to extinction in the 1960’s. Their dramatic recovery and current stability is aided by a state program somewhere between ingenious and highly controversial.

Saltwater crocs, Crocodylus posorus to the experts, and “salties” to the locals, are the world’s largest reptiles. Salties get their nickname from their preference for brackish water. Their average length is an intimidating twelve feet, but there are confirmed reports of 20-foot males weighing up to two thousand pounds. They ambush their prey, generally employing the “pretend to be a log and then lunge” approach. Juveniles are limited to eating crustaceans and fish, but for adults nearly anything can be prey: monkeys, boars, and, regrettably, livestock. Several very publicized saltwater crocodiles attacks, including one where a 12-year-old boy was eaten, and another where an inadequately anesthetized zoo croc bit the arm off a vet, have contributed to their poor reputation.

Image Courtesy of Matt Clancy

Image Courtesy of Matt Clancy

Beginning in the 1940’s, crocodiles were hunted both for sport for the foolhardy and for their very valuable hides, culminating in a dramatic population decrease. In the Northern Territory the crocodile population plummeted from 100,000 to 5,000 over just a few decades. As a result, between 1969 and 1974 various Australian provinces completely banned recreational and commercial hunting, with exceptions made for subsistence hunting by Aborigines.

In 1969, a state-funded research crocodile farm in Queensland was erected to explore the possibility that crocodile farms could conserve saltwater crocodiles and provide employment for underserved populations. However, the ban on hunting endured until the 1990’s and is largely credited with the restoration of hardy salty populations. As a result, in the 1980’s crocodile attacks had become more commonplace, leading for calls to cull them. In response to this pressure, the crocodile management programs expanded to include education components, a job for some bold soul relocating troublesome crocodiles, and small-scale egg-collecting. Saltwater crocodile eggs are collected (an errand made complicated by protective and toothy mothers) and then sold to farms. Ultimately, the small number that hatch will be raised for their high quality leather and allegedly palatable meat.

Image courtesy of Tourism NT (http://www.travelnt.com)

Image courtesy of Tourism NT (http://www.travelnt.com)

In the mid-80’s, several populations of saltwater crocodiles in Australia were moved from Appendix I to Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Speices). For the uninitiated, legally, harvesting saltwater crocodiles was no longer banned, just highly monitored. In response, collections scaled up to tens of thousands of eggs from the wild. In the mid 1990’s, limiting hunting of juvenile and adult crocodiles was permitted in the Northern Territory. Crocodile populations have continued to grow these past few decades behind this.

The philosophy behind these rulings is referred to as “sustainable economic use.” Landholders have limited and relentlessly regulated rights to crocodiles nesting, living, and inevitably hunting on their property. They can sell their crocodiles to leather and meat farms. This makes coexisting with salties profitable, if terrifying. Though saltwater crocodiles remain horrific tenants, at least now they’re paying their way. This model is still too young to have proven itself, but is certainly intriguing. If proven successful it may be applied to nightmare-inducing animals with human neighbors worldwide.

Image Courtesy of Brocken Inaglory

Image Courtesy of Brocken Inaglory

 

 

The Wisdom of Sea Urchins

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Black sea urchin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Lucen.

By Frances Hall

Sea urchins are almost comically unlovable: covered with spines that are known to break off within an unwary wader’s foot, eyeless and faceless, a mouth that looks like a jagged abyss, difficult to empathize with, distinctly un-cuddly. However, new research suggests that, when it comes to solution to climate change, we should have gone to them first.

For those few of you who haven’t yet heard: climate change, a process that experts from every natural science agree is caused by human activity,  is due to a collection of emissions known as greenhouse gases. The effects of these include global warming, ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and, possibly down the line, a new ice age in Europe. Arguably, the most insidious greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is produced by a number of processes, from heavy industrial process and driving most cars to the unavoidable pastimes of breathing and volcanic eruptions. What’s Your Impact? estimates that 87 percent of all human-produced emissions, which total an average annual 33.4 billion metric tons, originate from burning fossil fuels. Several countries, despite the political rigmarole and pervasive ignorance that surrounds the entire issue, have signed treaties or laws agreeing to limit their carbon emissions. The fact that many (but not all) of these countries ultimately put off reducing carbon emissions for the sake of the economy remains discouraging. There are a number of ways to slow this process, many of which a single person could elect to do: relying on solar panels or windmills instead of coal, taking the bus, even just eating less meat.

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A dissected sea urchin with visible eggs. Photo courtesy of Achim Raschka.

Unfortunately, none of those steps are going to eliminate the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. Several natural processes, such as photosynthesis and carbon fixation, can, and do reduce atmospheric CO2. However, they simply cannot keep up with the rate of human emissions. One proposed solution is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). According to the Global CCS Institute, this involves the separation of CO2 from other gases at the source, such as steel mills and coal plants. The CO2  is then compressed and transported to a more suitable site. Finally, it is injected into underground rock formations, often at least 1 km below the surface. The idea is that the  CO2 will remain there indefinitely. However, this is just as expensive as it sounds and there is always the possibility that the CO2 will leak out at some later date.

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Chalk quarry in Crete. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Wouterhagens.

Sea urchins may be showing us an alternative. Physicist Dr. Lidija Siller was studying the reaction that combines gaseous CO2  and ocean water into carbonic acid, the process that leads to ocean acidification and all of its diversity-crushing side effects. She was also investigating how sea urchins convert CO2  into calcium carbonate shells. When her team analyzed the surface of sea urchin larvae, they found a high concentration of nickel nanoparticles. When tiny particles of nickel were added to a carbonic acid solution, the result was a complete removal of CO2  with only water and calcium carbonate, also known as chalk, as products.

The team has patented this into a process where waste gas from industrial processes is passed through a water column rich with nickel particles where the chalk will gather at the bottom. This appears to be a nearly ideal solution: chalk is a stable material widely used to make products as varied as cement and plaster casts the nickel particles could theoretically be reused indefinitely. It wouldn’t be possible to attach one of these to every bus and truck, but these could be used to reduce carbon output from most major source. According to Dr. Lidija Siller via BBC news, “It seems too good to be true, but it works.”

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Water melon sea urchin. Image courtesy of Marco Busdraghi.