Scientists say they can bring extinct species back. But should they?

Yahoo News

A group of scientists last week announced a plan to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger, a coyote-like marsupial that has been extinct for nearly a century, using state-of-the-art gene editing technology.

The goal, researchers say, is to eventually reintroduce the creature back into the Australian wilderness, where it roamed as an apex predator before being hunted into extinction in the early 20th century. To achieve this, scientists plan to splice genetic material from old Tasmanian tigers with the DNA of its closest living relative — a mouse-sized marsupial called a dunnat — to create a new animal nearly identical to its long-dead ancestor.

The project is a collaboration between Australian researchers and a U.S.-based company called Colossal Biosciences. Last year, Colossal unveiled a bold plan to bring back the woolly mammoth. As difficult as reviving the Tasmanian tiger might be, the mammoth presents even larger challenges. Mammoths have been extinct for 4,000 years, meaning there is even less genetic material available to work with. The people behind the project concede that — if their work is successful — it will result in a creature that isn’t exactly a mammoth as it once existed, but really a “cold-resistant elephant with all of the core biological traits of the Woolly Mammoth.”

These efforts are part of an emerging scientific movement called “de-extinction.” Separate projects have been launched in hopes of bringing back extinct species like the Christmas Island rat, the passenger pigeon and even possibly the dodo. Similar work is being done to help animals currently at risk of extinction. In 2020, scientists successfully cloned a black-footed ferret, a severely threatened species that would likely disappear without new members being added to wild populations.

As significant as the question of whether these animals can be brought back — and a lot of experts have their doubts — there is a lot of debate over whether they should be.

Why there’s debate

Supporters of de-extinction say, beyond the sheer wonder it creates, the science gives us a chance to right some of the wrongs committed in the past by reviving species eradicated by humans. There is also hope that, once reintroduced, these creatures will help reestablish an equilibrium missing from their ecosystems since they went extinct.

Advocates say there are other potential outcomes that could benefit humans as well. The scientists trying to bring back mammoths, for example, say wild herds of these enormous animals may help combat climate change by slowing the erosion of permafrost in the snowy regions they may one day roam. Others say ambitious projects like de-extinction are likely to unlock breakthroughs in genetic science that can be used to protect endangered species.

But critics say the attention, effort and — perhaps most important — money put into de-extinction efforts would be much more effective if they were used to preserve the 1 million currently existing species that face extinction. There are also questions about whether it’s right to bring animals back into a world very different from what they once knew, how their reintroduction might harm creatures living there now and even broader concerns about the ethics of “playing God” by manipulating the natural order.

What’s next

Scientists at Colossal say they hope to have a living woolly mammoth, or mammoth-elephant hybrid, within the next five to six years. The company hasn’t given a specific timeline for the Tasmanian tiger, but there’s optimism that, thanks to its relatively short gestational period, it could be the first species they successfully bring back.

Perspectives

Supporters

De-extinciton could have enormous benefits for science and conservation

“Most de-extinction researchers aren’t looking to resurrect a charismatic ancient beast just for the sake of putting it into the nearest zoo for viewer pleasure. Rather, they are aiming to create proxies for educational or conservation purposes, such as to fill the void left by their extinct counterparts in ecosystems or to boost the numbers of modern-day endangered species.” — Yasemin Saplakoglu, Quanta

The research could unlock new tools to save other species from extinction

“It’s vital we maintain robust scrutiny and skepticism of ambitious projects, but we must also support scientists to push boundaries and take educated risks. And sometimes we learn, even when we ‘fail.’” — Wildlife ecologist Euan Ritchie to The Conversation

There’s real value in accomplishing something that once seemed impossible

“The prospect of de-extinction is profound news. That something as irreversible and final as extinction might be reversed is a stunning realization. The imagination soars. Just the thought of mammoths and passenger pigeons alive again invokes the awe and wonder that drives all conservation at its deepest level.” — Stewart Brand, National Geographic

Skeptics

Scientists should focus on saving species that are facing extinction right now

“​​There is evidence of a mass extinction taking place, the likes of which hasn’t been seen on Earth for millions of years. When it comes to protecting biodiversity on our planet, resurrecting a prehistoric creature is low on the priority list.” — Justine Calma, The Verge

The choice of what species get to be revived shouldn’t be left to private companies

“Reshaping the planet shouldn’t be left to a chosen few, with insider advice from hand-picked experts. Instead, Colossal, and all companies like it, should do something as radical for business as its plans are for the planet: actively involve the public in its research decisions.” — Victoria Herridge, Nature

Animals will suffer enormously along the way

“The whole discourse is about bringing this animal back, but the welfare of the individual animals isn’t really talked about. [Animal suffering] cannot be justified for such an uncertain result. It would be many years, if ever, that cloned [Tasmanian tigers] could have anything like the life they may have had—and deserve—in the wild.” — Carol Freeman, animal studies researcher, to Scientific American

De-extinction is impossible

“De-extinction is a fairytale science. It’s pretty clear to people like me that thylacine or mammoth de-extinction is more about media attention for the scientists and less about doing serious science.” — Jeremy Austin, animal DNA researcher, to Sydney Morning Herald

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