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In the News: Does Extinction Have to Be Forever?

March 22, 2013

By Helen Chappell

We’ve started a new experiment in the exhibits! Today we set up the first label in an ongoing series of temporary labels and complimentary blog posts, “In the News.” We’ve blogged before about how tricky it can be to keep the labels on the floor up-to-date with emerging science, and this is our latest effort at doing just that. First up is a fascinating and controversial topic: using technology to bring back extinct species.

Photo of new exhibit label on "de-extinction."

You can find our new (and temporary) label perched on one of the reader rails in the Biodiversity exhibit, on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.

Perhaps you’re coming to us from the QR code in the exhibit itself, or perhaps you found your way here just because you’re interested in learning more about “de-extinction.” Either way, welcome!

The whole de-extinction party in the news was kicked off by National Geographic. They hosted a one-day TEDx conference on March 15, with synthetic biologists and conservationists and plenty of others speaking about their research or opinions about the idea.

National Geographic also dedicated their April issue to the topic. For a great overview of the science and the ethics, start with Carl Zimmer’s feature piece.

The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world. For most of that time the science of de-extinction has lagged far behind the fantasy.

Gina Kolata at The New York Times also has a newsy overview of what was discussed at the conference on March 15.

Until recently, the arrow of natural selection seemed to go only one way. A species could form, then it could flourish, then it could go extinct. And once it was extinct, it could not come back.

Now, though, some scientists say they see a new path.

“Maybe we can no longer delay death, but we can reverse it,” said George Church, a Harvard Medical School geneticist.

One last newsy look before we get to opinions: David Biello reported on the conference for Scientific American.

While tadpoles may be a long way off, let alone a viable frog, the southern gastric brooding frog might be the first species brought back from the dead permanently. The first de-extinction happened in 2003, although it lasted all too briefly.  Scientists coaxed a clone of an extinct ibex from Spain to birth from a special hybrid goat. But the cloned bucardo bore a third lung and couldn’t breathe properly, dying within 10 minutes.

Although this early effort failed, the growing cohort of resurrection projects raises a central question: Does extinction mean forever, anymore? If not, do we have an obligation to bring species back? “If it’s clear that we exterminated these species, we not only have a moral obligation to see what we can do about it but a moral imperative to do something if we can,” Archer argued. The new science of synthetic biology aims to make it possible for him to fulfill that moral imperative.

Scientific American also has a super cool video up about one of the species being targeted for de-extinction, the gastric brooding frog.

Ed Yong also took a look at the gastric brooding frog on his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Archer’s goal is simple: To bring the extinct gastric brooding frog back from oblivion and, in doing so, provide hope for the hundreds of other frogs that are heading that way. Getting the embryo was a milestone and Archer is buoyantly optimistic that he’ll cross the finish line soon. Lazarus, he says, will rise again.

It’s not all frogs, though. Here’s a piece Ed Yong wrote some time ago on his blog about resurrecting the wooly mammoth.

Tens of thousands of years ago, woolly mammoths roamed the northern hemisphere. These giant beasts may now be extinct, but some of their bodies still remain in the frozen Arctic wilderness. Several dozen such carcasses have now been found, and some are in extremely good condition. Scientists have used these remains to discover much about how the mammoth lived and died, and even to sequence most of its genome. But can they also bring the animal back from the dead? Will the woolly mammoth walk again?

Now it’s opinion time. Stewart Brand wrote enthusiastically for continuing de-extinction work in National Geographic.

Humans killed off a lot of species over the last 10,000 years. Some resurrection is in order. A bit of redemption might come with it.

Stuart Pimm at Duke, however, isn’t a fan. You can read his views in an editorial for National Geographic and a Q&A at the Duke Chronicle.

De-extinction intends to resurrect single, charismatic species, yet millions of species are at risk of extinction. De-extinction can only be an infinitesimal part of solving the crisis that now sees species of animals (some large but most tiny), plants, fungi, and microbes going extinct at a thousand times their natural rates.

And it sounds like Keith Kloor, writing at his blog Collide-a-Scape, isn’t quite sure yet.

I have mixed feelings about the idea. In the abstract, I think it’s pretty cool. The prospect of regaining lost pieces of our evolutionary heritage is exciting, as I wrote in a 2006 Audubon magazine review of a book that argued for “reversing prehistoric extinctions when we have the chance.”

Ecologists and conservationists seem divided, though. A group of them expressed their enthusiasm in a 2005 commentary in Nature; others, such as the prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, argue forcefully against the “de-extinction” proposal.

Finally, Brian Switek explains that we might not be bringing back the species we say we are, at least not as they really were, in a piece at his blog, Laelaps.

De-extinction, in the strict sense of trying to resurrect creatures just as they were, appeals to a simplistic sense of environmental justice. Through cloning, tweaking genes, and other procedures, synthetic biologists suggest that they can recreate long lost creatures and pop these revived lineages right back into suitable habitats, therefore restoring some semblance of ecological equilibrium. New inventions will restore some semblance of nature untrammeled and undisturbed by human presence, according to such visions, which is preferable to the compromised ecological hodgepodge that surrounds us today.

That’s how de-extinction is marketed, in any case. The fact of the matter is that revived species would be more akin to carefully-assembled replicas that fit our vision of what those lost creatures were like – living odes to our best conception of what that animal was actually like.

What do you think about the idea of de-exinction? Do you have any favorite links about it to share?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 10:39 pm

    It isn’t only the exhibit labels that quickly fall behind. The night before the Tedx conference, on March 14th, I spoke about the extinction of the gastric brooding frog at the museum’s Science Cafe. Little did I know that scientists were gearing up that week to announce plans to revive the species from extinction using new laboratory technology.

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