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Gene-splicing and cloning may restore lost species, but not their lost worlds

Revisions to Minnesota’s threatened and endangered lists show species heading in the wrong direction by a 5:1 ratio.

Restoring creatures like the woolly mammoth to the earth "is no longer a fantasy," but "Is it a good idea?"
CC/Flickr/Flying Puffin

Suddenly, “de-extinction” is all the rage.

“Reviving Extinct Species” is the cover subject in the current National Geographic, which tells us that restoring creatures like the woolly mammoth to the earth “is no longer a fantasy” — and then asks, “Is it a good idea?”

Not coincidentally, a special TEDx Conference took place last Friday at National Geographics headquarters in Washington, sponsored jointly by the Geographic, the TED organization and an outfit called Revive & Restore, which thinks resurrection biology through gene-splicing and cloning is not only a good idea but a cool one, a great one, whose time has come at last.

In the words of Revive & Restore co-founder Stewart Brand, longtime big thinker on environmental stuff, the TED presentations constituted “the first public discussion of something that’s been brewing for a year or two, which is the possibility of bringing back extinct species for real, not in fiction this time.”

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Sharing the emcee duties was Revive & Restore’s other cofounder, Ryan Phelan, former CEO of a company that advises health plans on the uses of genetic testing. (Also, she is married to Brand.) Rounding out the greeter group was TED owner Chris Anderson, who explained that TEDx typically rejects requests for single-subject conferences like this one, but made an exception because the species restoration work being championed by Brand, Phelan and others is “such a thrilling, big deal.”

In Anderson’s view, resurrecting vanished creatures is the way to reverse a long and discouraging narrative in which humans have repeatedly screwed up the planet — a chance to be heroes, to put things right again.


Heading in the wrong direction

As it happens, I noticed the TED conference on a day I was making tally marks on the Department of Natural Resources’  proposed amendments to Minnesota’s lists of endangered and threatened species.

By now I imagine most Minnesotans know that moose are headed for that list, thanks to their crashing populations, and that wolves are coming off, as one more consequence of federal protections ending last year.

But in addition to those two marquee species, DNR is proposing to move 300 other species up or down the scale of concern, and the pattern is not encouraging.

Among mammals, six species in addition to the moose are going on the list for the first time, including the Canada lynx and big brown bat, and a seventh, the northern pocket gopher, is moving up from “special concern” status to “threatened.”  The gray wolf is the only listed mammal whose status has improved since the last revisions, in 1996.

Five birds are joining the list for the first time, and two more are going from threatened to endangered, while four species are judged to be doing enough better to move them to lower categories of concern.

And so it goes throughout the fish, the reptiles and amphibians, the mollusks and the butterflies and dragonflies and caddisflies, the vascular plants and the lichens ….

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By my hand tabulations, it would seem that 252 listable species are doing worse in the DNR’s judgment while 46 are doing better, which means things are heading in the wrong direction, extinction-wise, by a ratio of 5.5 to 1. Two plant species left the list by going extinct (raven’s foot sedge and nodding rattlesnakeroot) while a species of wild petunia came on the list after it was determined not to be extinct after all.

And that’s just Minnesota.

I’ll come back to this list, and the national endangered-species picture, in future posts (perhaps I’ll also find the missing plant or critter whose absence makes my tallies add to 301, not 302.) But for now, may I simply suggest that we have bigger, more pressing issues of species preservation and protection before us than a vanity project to get mammoths walking the earth again?

The new and not so new

Reading National Geographic rang some distant bells from a time when I was writing about species conservation for the Star Tribune’s opinion pages. I went back and found an editorial from Dec. 31, 2000, that began this way:

Any day now, a marvelous birth is to occur on a farm in Iowa. The mother will be an ordinary cow. The offspring will be a gaur, a massive wild ox of south Asia whose numbers are in sharp decline.

And the father? A Massachusetts company that specializes in animal  cloning, and hopes to perfect the technique as a means of reversing extinctions.

 The gaur will be the first clone of an endangered species. Soon the company hopes to bring back the bucardo, a goatlike animal of the Pyrenees that went extinct a year ago. Off in the not-distant future is a dream of cloning China’s giant panda, widely expected to vanish in as little as 10 years.

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I can report that the company, Advanced Cell Technology, announced the gaur’s birth on January 8, 2001. It was a male, christened Noah, and it died within 48 hours of a bacterial infection in the gut that its creators said was unrelated to the circumstances of its creation.

Thanks to National Geographic, I can report that the bucardo, too, came back to life, briefly, in July 2003 after scientists substituted cell nuclei from frozen remains of the last living individual, nicknamed Celia, for those in the ova of living goats:

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After 57 implantations, only seven animals had become pregnant. And of those seven pregnancies, six ended in miscarriages. But one mother — a hybrid between a Spanish ibex and a goat — carried a clone of Celia to term. [Jose] Folch and his colleagues performed a cesarean section and delivered the 4.5-pound clone.

As [Alberto] Fernández-Arias held the newborn bucardo in his arms, he could see that she was struggling to take in air, her tongue jutting grotesquely out of her mouth. Despite the efforts to help her breathe, after a mere ten minutes Celia’s clone died. A necropsy later revealed that one of her lungs had grown a gigantic extra lobe as solid as a piece of liver. There was nothing anyone could have done.

The dodo and the great auk, the thylacine and the Chinese river dolphin, the passenger pigeon and the imperial woodpecker — the bucardo is only one in the long list of animals humans have driven extinct, sometimes deliberately. And with many more species now endangered, the bucardo will have much more company in the years to come. FernándezArias belongs to a small but passionate group of researchers who believe that cloning can help reverse that trend.

Those paragraphs are the work of Carl Zimmer, a fine science writer who explains that while the techniques of transferring nuclei have improved, and scientists have learned how to get adult cells to act more like embryo cells, the real advance may come in the ability to stitch pieces of DNA together in the absence of a single intact cell. (In his presentation at the TEDx conference he likened it to pasting up the shards of cookbook pages recovered from a paper shredder.)

This ability becomes increasingly critical as the targets for de-extinction move further back in time — vanishing not in the 1980s, like the bucardo, or even 1930s, like the thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian tiger, wiped out by ranchers and now the focus of an Australian recovery effort called the Lazarus Project), but 12,000 years ago, like the mammoths some Russian scientists dream of restoring to a Siberian attraction called Pleistocene Park.

At the moment, the Lazarus Project is working with recently extinct frogs, trying to get cloned cells to survive beyond the embryo stage.

The ethics of cool and neat

As for the ethics of de-extinction, Zimmer says many leading researchers want to work through those questions before a major species-recovery project goes forward. Others, however, side with the Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely, who told Zimmer we should embrace de-extinction simply because we can: “What intrigues me is just that it’s really cool. A saber-toothed cat? It would be neat to see one of those.”

Cool. Neat. Indeed.

I guess I prefer Zimmer’s more detached observation, delivered to the TEDx audience, when he talked about a particular Chinese turtle that’s about to go extinct.

Magnificent animals, he said, but they’re going away because their river environment has already gone — and if we want to bring them back, “maybe we have to think about bringing the world back as well.”

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In fact, maybe we ought to think about doing that part first. Call it resurrecting ecology.