Sunday, March 24, 2013

Demystifying De-Extinction

The following article is a guest post by David Jachowski.  Dr. Jachowski is an instructor at Virginia Tech and conducts research in the United States, Africa and southeast Asia on the conservation and restoration of wildlife. You can find more information about his research on his website 

   So maybe genetically recreating the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is a bad idea.  Long extinct, the only chunks of DNA we are able to piece together to bring it back would have to be mixed into an Asian elephant. And over time, through a long process of trial and error, we could likely create a laboratory hybrid with the right combination of size, long hair, and cold tolerance genes expressed to at least visually recreate a Woolly Mammoth.  A geneticist's rendition of what a Woolly Mammoth should be like that in the end is a Frankenstein animal, no more realistic than the cartoons that artists render for our imaginations.  And maybe the other figurehead of de-extinction, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), is the wrong way to go.  We have fresh specimens from the early 1900's, and technology from the poultry industry, but would need thousands if not millions of expensively engineered individuals to ever recover the enormous flocks that once flew over the eastern seaboard.

   Respected conservation biologists call de-extinction misguided, or at best a hobbyist branch of conservation biology.  They loudly cry that it will take money from existing conservation efforts, create invasive species and worst of all lead to the political and public disregard for extinction.  This last concern of disregarding extinction deserves more attention.  As a field that is based on conserving species from extinction, de-extinction potentially pulls the foundation out from under the entire conservation biology movement in one fell swoop.  If extinction is no longer forever, lobbyist and pro-development politicians should be licking their chops.

    Despite these objections, the consistent theme of the current National Geographic cover story and conference on de-extinction is one of hope.  Hope that will distract us from the more common and depressing story conservationists have been pedaling for over 20 years - that we are ruining the planet by causing a sixth major mass extinction event at an unprecedented pace.  Perhaps conservation biologists should look in the mirror and ask if what we are doing is working and if people are still listening.  Jurassic Park may be science fiction, but it was correct in one thing - there is public interest that can be generated by inspiring people’s imagination and curiosity.

   If this is the first you have heard of de-extinction, know that this is happening.  Even if you have deep reservations about genetically recreating species, there are no longer questions regarding whether we can do it. The train is leaving the station and we as conservationists need to be in front of it or on it, not be left behind.  As you read this, Australian scientists are watching the cells divide in a future, genetically re-engineered Gastric-brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus silus and/or vitellinus), bringing the extinct species back to life.  Thylacines (aka Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus) and mammoths will likely follow a few years later.  It is pointless to try to block this from happening, but what if we were to direct de-extinction so that it strategically focuses on the species we most carelessly let go.  We could direct the de-extinction train towards charismatic and ecologically important species we extirpated through simple overharvest like the giant oceanic island tortoises or Caribbean Monk Seals (Monachus tropicalus).  By bringing them back we would almost undoubtedly gain both species and ecosystem function.  It may not be the same ecosystem or even the exact same species, but it is a step forward in conserving biodiversity and a new, more popular, ecosystem. 

   Yes I said popular, because in the end, with over seven billion people and counting, conservationists needs to accept that preserving species is a popularity contest.  The Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) only wins against gas development if people like them and advocate for them.  For de-extinction, we could use the same branding that makes restoration ecology so attractive to the public (by selling hope that things can be restored) for conserving existing protected areas as well as neglected, novel ecosystems.  Look at the success of large herbivore and carnivore restoration in South Africa, or tourism demand to see wolves in Yellowstone.  There are certainly concerns to proceeding with de-extinction, but perhaps by embracing and defining the path of de-extinction, conservation biologists will not lose the foundation of their discipline, but gain another leg on their stool of support.

Want to Learn More? Check Out These Scientific Articles:

Hansen, D., Donlan, C., Griffiths, C., & Campbell, K. (2010). Ecological history and latent conservation potential: large and giant tortoises as a model for taxon substitutions Ecography DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06305.x

Josh Donlan C, Berger J, Bock CE, Bock JH, Burney DA, Estes JA, Foreman D, Martin PS, Roemer GW, Smith FA, Soulé ME, & Greene HW (2006). Pleistocene rewilding: an optimistic agenda for twenty-first century conservation. The American Naturalist, 168 (5), 660-81 PMID: 17080364

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