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De-Extinction: What A Species?

Let’s face it, we’re killing the planet. Right at home in BC, we’ve lost the Island Large Marble, the Sei Whale and the Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard. More recently, many populations of Chinook Salmon are now considered endangered throughout the province.

In Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, author Britt Wray looks at the possibilities of resurrecting a species like the woolly mammoth. The term used throughout the book to describe this process is “de-extinction.”

Turns out, Jurassic Park’s John Hammond did spare some expense. In the film, Hammond’s team finds a mosquito frozen perfectly in amber. In its stomach contents are perfectly preserved dinosaur DNA and they use that to recreate dinosaurs that actually look nothing like how we now know dinosaurs looked. But, as Wray explains, finding a mosquito from the Triassic or Jurassic era wouldn’t account for much. And what’re the chances of finding a mosquito that only sought out sweet, sweet T-Rex blood in the first place?

That leads us to the work of Dr. George M. Church. His work with Harvard University is to “proxy” the mammoth using CRISPR genome technology.

Instead of trying to turn ancient mosquito blood into a living, breathing woolly mammoth, they’re looking at altering existing Asian elephant DNA from mammoth soft tissue stored in the permafrost.

They’ve successfully spliced the two together and are now attempting to turn the hybrid skin cells into an embryo that can grow in an artificial womb. That’s the real challenge.

Church states, “Just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful. We want to read out the phenotypes.” Phenotypes are the observable traits of an organism, which need to be understood properly to create that embryo. If that’s possible – and if they’re successful – where in the world do we put a herd of mammoths?

Jurassic Park?

What about a Last Glacial Maximum Park?

In 1988, Russian scientist Sergey Zimov founded Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve intended to replicate the “mammoth steppe” —Earth’s most extensive biome that flourished during the last glacial period. It had high-productivity grasses, willow shrubs and herbs. It was home to horse, bison, and —you guessed it —mammoths. Animals currently in the park range from reindeer to red foxes, but Zimov hopes to one day harbour herds of woolly mammoth there. He believes that the landscape in Siberia only changed once the mammoths left and reintegrating them would drastically alter the surrounding area to create a grassland ecosystem. In an interview with BBC News, he’s quoted as saying, “The animals, their hooves, they disturb the moss and let grasses grow instead. The soil dries out, the animals deposit their fertilizer, the grass grows more, and more animals can graze.”

Zimov’s concept was listed as one of Project Drawdown’s “100 most substantive solutions to global warming.”

Thomas Van Dooren, Australian leading philosopher of extinction studies, is more cautious about the ethics of de-extinction. “Given the current context, as we’re letting endangered species go extinct, resurrecting them doesn’t represent the beginning of a new ethical relationship with them. It could just begin another phase of extinction for them”

Extinction is a natural process. Since the Cambrian period (590 million years ago), about two species disappear from the planet annually, according to the Conservation Data Centre at the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Park. They say that number could be anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times higher now.

Extinction used to be forever, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.

To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life will, uh, find a way.”