Can extinct animals come back to life?
- Paul Organ
- BBC – World Service
Scientists are trying to revive some extinct animal species.
An American startup founded in 2021 seems confident that it can resurrect not just one, but two extinct animal species in the next five to ten years.
It may have seemed easy in the famous sci-fi movie Jurassic Park, but in reality it does not seem like an easy task, and many doubt that it can be achieved, except for those who think that it should not be attempted for ethical reasons.
In this article, we will look at what the scheme is and investigate whether it is really possible to revive extinct animals.
What is the scheme?
Colossal Biosciences, led by American geneticist George Church and CEO Ben Lam, hopes to revive woolly mammoths by 2027.
With the help of the University of Melbourne, the company recently announced a project to revive the Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial native to the Australian mainland and the islands of Tasmania and New Guinea, which has been extinct since the 1930s.
But how can I do that?
One possible method relies on a form of reverse engineering, in which scientists take stem cells from living species with similar DNA and then use gene-editing technology to “bring back” extinct species.
For the woolly mammoth, the closest living relative is the Asian elephant.
As for the thylacine DNA, the team is working on taking cells from a thylacine embryo that was removed from its mother’s womb and placed in alcohol at a museum in Melbourne, Australia.
Why is the process of resurrecting an extinct animal so complex and difficult?
The biggest hurdle for scientists is finding enough intact DNA to be able to accurately recreate the animal, as closely as possible to the original animal’s DNA.
But the problem is that when animals die, their DNA code falls apart, or becomes broken into shorter strands, so putting them back together in the right order is a challenge.
What are the intended benefits?
Ben Lam, co-founder of Colossal Biosciences, believes that bringing back extinct animals can help preserve biodiversity, restore weakened ecosystems and compensate for damage caused by humans in the past.
“Both the woolly mammoth and the thylacine played a large role in their ecology,” he says. “The return of these two species of animals would have a positive effect on the decline of the ecosystem, which is caused by the ecological void caused by the absence of a species.”
It also claims that their company’s research can advance scientific efforts to prevent the extinction of other species.
He explains: “The female animal known as the Tasmanian devil or Tasmanian devil gives birth to 20 or 30 young. However, only a handful of young survive. The method we are developing for the Thylacine project could be incredibly useful for conservationists.” ecologists working to save Tasmanian devils from extinction. “
What are the possible risks?
But critics such as Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, argue that creating a live baby mammoth could pose a risk to other animals if the genetically modified embryo were implanted into a surrogate elephant.
He explains: “The pregnancy has to last 22 months and then comes the process of giving birth, which means there are risks for the mother, that she is carrying different types – and it is a purely intrusive procedure.”
“This process cannot be done without some serious unethical behavior, which is using the womb of a mother elephant, which can be horrific. Artificial wombs are also not possible,” she says.
But Ben Lam says that Colossal Bioscience is aware of this problem: “In addition to the team responsible for the external uterine device, we have also formed a team specialized in the process of transplanting these embryos into the wombs of surrogate animals.”
Is it practical moral?
Some critics consider the idea of bringing back extinct animals immoral. No one knows what effect reintroducing a species like the woolly mammoth, which hasn’t roamed the earth for more than 4,000 years, would have. There is also an urgent question: what is the limit at which scientists will stop if this technology proves to be successful?
Victoria says it’s important to realize that no animal found this way will be an exact copy of the original extinct animal.
“There is no such thing as bringing extinct animals back to life. What will happen is the creation of something completely new. Once something is extinct, it means it’s gone and gone, we’ve lost it and we can’t have an exact copy of it.”
But Ben Lam says there is an urgent need to correct humanity’s mistakes: “We have the resources to bring extinct animals back to life and to start repairing the damage humanity has done to ecosystems.”
With the money and scientific expertise behind this latest project, we may be closer to witnessing the revival of extinct species than ever before.