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Further thoughts on de-extinction

Image: Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

In a recent blog I mentioned the danger inherent in the scientific method of pursuing things for their own sake, just because they might be done rather than they should or ought to be done, viz. the talk (only talk so far) of bringing back Neanderthals from extinction. Now, on the 19th March, 2013, we have news that an Australian team of scientists have ‘de-extincted’ (what monstrosities all this breeds in regards to the English language let alone anything else) the extraordinary gastric-brooding frog – Rheobatrachussilus – that was native to the rainforests of Queensland until 1983. Extraordinary, because it was a ‘freak of nature’ best known for giving birth through its mouth, having incubated its offspring in its stomach.

As is becoming almost a commonplace by now, the feat was achieved by employing a cloning technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer, in which they used tissue obtained from samples of a frog kept in a freezer since the 1970s to implant a "dead" cell nucleus into a fresh egg from a similar species of frog.

None of the embryos created survived for more than a few days, but the leader of the team, Professor Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, is quoted as saying… "Now we have fresh cryo-preserved cells of the extinct frog to use in future cloning experiments." And furthermore…"We're increasingly confident that the hurdles ahead are technological and not biological, and that we will succeed.” His justification for doing this work is that the technology will prove to be a vital conservation tool… “when hundreds of the world's amphibian species are in catastrophic decline."

Now, he may have a point where amphibians are concerned given their vital role in most ecological systems where the ‘canary in the mine’ analogy is probably an apt one, but do note the total absence of the words ‘ethical’, or anything remotely like it, and ‘ecological’ consequences in the sentence highlighted above. Then note that his next project will be to de-extinct the Thylacinus cynocephalus: a large carnivorous ‘dog-headed’ marsupial – also known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. But why one asks oneself - though no attempt at a justification is offered this time.

This, along with the worrying suggestion that even dinosaurs might now be recoverable after all (see: & search for: Asara, JM, Schweitzer MH, Freimark, LM, Phillips, M & Cantley, LC (2007). Protein Sequences from Mastodon and Tyrannosaurus Rex Revealed by Mass Spectrometry. Science, 316 (5822), 280 – 285) raises really profound questions that need addressing before any such research goes ahead.

(i) Why recreate a species just because you can? What sort of justification is that? Shall the whole of creation be restored then, insofar as it can?

(ii) There were often very sound reasons why species went extinct. They’d had their moment in evolutionary history and that was that – it would be best if things were left alone. Why recreate extinct or long dormant viruses, for example, just because you can? The motives for so doing are bound to be questionable and the consequences potentially catastrophic if these things cannot be contained.

(iii) How can anyone justify the re-creation of an extinct species without re-creating its ecological niche as well? Not a problem with recently extinct amphibians, obviously, just put them back in the rain-forest, but Woolly Mammoths or T Rex?

(iv) How can anyone justify re-creating a major predator without thinking about the consequences of its re-introduction outside of a zoo? If they are potentially too dangerous to be re-admitted to their former environment why, then, bother to re-create them at all? A particularly pertinent consideration with the Tasmanian Wolf, surely?

(v) target="_blank" And, then, are these really genuinely re-created species at all? The likelihood is that they will be very, very similar but – given the technology – they are bound to be new species altogether, aren’t they? That being so, why stop there? Why not engineer the whole bloody Garden – with Unicorns and Wyverns and Gryphons as well. After all, the whole Book of Life will be ours to re-write in the near future – chimeras as well!

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