Jurassic Park was the movie that got it onto everyone’s minds: could scientists really bring back species from the dead? Not dinosaurs, they’re far too long gone for any realistic chance of revival, but what about more recent extinctions like the Wooly Mammoth or the Passenger Pigeon? As we get closer to making de-extinction a real possibility, the question has transformed: should we do so, if we can?
De-extinction has captured the public imagination in a way few ecological initiatives or technological possibilities ever have. While currently scientists can’t really bring back a mammoth, other de-extinction efforts have been successes… More or less. In 2009 a clone of the extinct Pyrenean Ibex was successfully birthed, although it died just minutes afterwards. Meanwhile the Quagga, a type of zebra, has been recreated aesthetically if not genetically in the specially bred new species of the Rau Quagga.
But is it really right to spend mountains of money on dying clones and look-alikes? Many people, especially conservationalists, think not. For one thing, study suggests that for every species we bring back, we’d be spending money that could conserve three or four more live species. Luckily, provided we preserve DNA samples as well as we can, we have some one and half million years to decide what to do with the information before it degrades. De-extinction is not urgent and likely never will be, which gives plenty of time for technological advances to bring down the costs. Even the most fragile DNA samples, retrieved from corpses exposed to harsh conditions for thousands of years, will last a minimum of a few more decades in the state they are in now.
Still, ecological preservation is clearly important. How is tech helping to preserve declining species, or even reverse the decline? The last male northern white rhino died in 2018, but the techniques developed in part for de-extinction are being put to the test as conservationalists try desperate plans to save the species, which is not yet truly extinct, as two adult females remain alive. In comparison to species that died out decades ago when cloning was unthinkable, we have large amounts of perfectly preserved northern white rhino DNA, and even frozen sperm. Scientists are hoping they can use this information to create new northern white rhino babies, and thereby keep the species going. In vitro fertilization, one of the techniques under consideration, has already been used successfully in the conservation of bison.
A number of “frozen zoos” have sprung up in anticipation of genetic information being used to prevent extinction or bring about de-extinction in the future. The San Diego Zoo’s collection of such genetic material is currently the largest, with some 1,000 taxa represented. Material from these collections has already been used successfully; in 1999 the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species successfully implanted a house cat with the embryo of an African wildcat from their collection, who was later born in perfect health. This wildcat, named Jazz, was then successfully cloned, resulting in a healthy adult male named Ditteaux. Ditteaux went on have two litters of natural offspring as of 2005, both with other cloned wildcats.
In short, you’re not likely to end up with a pet mammoth any time soon, but the same techniques that would be used for de-extinction may be the crucial piece that saves species that are alive but struggling today. Furthermore, as such techniques are worked on and improved, de-extinction of currently extinct species may come along eventually after all.