Door 22: De-extinction

When in 1990 the fascinating novel entitled ‘Jurassic Park’ by Michael Crichton was published the idea of a re-creation of extinct species was pure fiction. Certainly, by the time many of us were wondering if de-extinction may become reality, even more so when in 1993 the Steven Spielberg movie of the same title turned animated dinosaurs into an almost real experience.

Given the ongoing and expected future biodiversity loss one may be tempted to think about bringing back extinct species using advanced genetic methods. This may sound as a fascinating scientific challenge, and even private start-up companies emerged such as e.g. the US based Collosal Bioscience, astart-up company founded in 2021, promises the solution to the increasing loss of biodiversity is de-extinction. With the dramatic improvements of molecular genetic methodology, in particular nucleic acid sequencing techniques, many researchers conclude that we have come close to that de-extinction of species has become indeed possible. 

However, one may ask if de-extinction is an appropriate solution to the biodiversity crisis, or is it just that we wish to do it because we can? Is de-extinction using gene technology the same as the re-creation of the natural history of an extinct species? There is many opinions, and the topic is controversially discussed, not only among scientists.

Technically speaking, there is essentially three different approaches for what is sometimes referred to as ‘true’ de-extinction, i.e., back-breeding, cloning, and genetic engineering. It should also be noticed that there is other concepts such as e.g., ‘de-extinction sensu lato’ meaning the resurrection plants that are ‘extinct in the wild’ but preserved as seeds or tissue in herbaria. The basic idea of back-breeding is to bring back through selective breeding individuals that resemble morphologically the extinct ones. Cloning strategies usually apply a somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) concept, i.e. in short the attempt to transfer a cell nucleus into a donor egg cell; a substantial problem is, of course, where to get the cell nuclei from. Genetic engineering for de-extinction is based on the idea that initially the genome of an extinct species can be sequenced, and subsequently been ‘edited’ into a living cell. While the genetic engineering approach is far for being trivial is seems overall the most promising approach.

Nevertheless, even if we believe that de-extinction may make sense, we at best can recreate ‘proxies’ of the extinct species. We can perhaps come close, but the recreated species will not be the same as what was lost. So will de-extinction really rectify previous harms? Do we have the right to alter the course of natural history? No doubt, there is many unanswered question on the ethics of specific resurrection projects and on the concept of de-extinction in general.

However, regardless if we believe that de-extinction has potential or should be banned, all certainly agree that it makes more sense to stop the destruction of ecosystems and to preserve biodiversity rather than to try to fix it by hindsight.

Further reading (some examples):
Albani Rocchetti et al. 2022. Selecting the best candidates for resurrecting extinct-in-the-wild plants from herbaria. Nature Plants 8: 1385–1393. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-022-01296-7
Lin et al. 2022. Probing the genomic limits of de-extinction in the Christmas Island rat,
Current Biology 32: 1650-1656. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.02.027.
Odenbaugh. 2023. Philosophy and ethics of de-extinction. Cambridge Prisms: Extinction. 1:e7. https://doi:10.1017/ext.2023.4

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