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De-extinction: Satisfying Nostalgia or Rectifying Wrongs?

In the past, humankind has caused many species to face extinction. But now, with advances in science and technology, we might be able to revive some of these species which we have missed and/or never encountered. Although such a thought inspires hope, we ought to carefully consider whether de-extinction actually brings more good than bad. Is the cause for de-extinction merely to satisfy our nostalgia or do we genuinely want to restore our planet with the diversity of flora and fauna it once had?

by Vanessa Quek

The popular thought that comes to mind with the word “de-extinction” would be the well-loved movie, Jurassic Park, where the scientists are portrayed to clone dinosaurs by extracting dinosaur genetic material from an insect fossilised in amber.

What if such technology was no longer mere fiction but now a possible reality?

Professor Amy Fletcher, who specialises in environmental politics, science, and technology, defined de-extinction as the use of advanced bioengineering technologies (e.g. cloning, ancient DNA analysis, genome sequencing) in an attempt to bring back extinct species. 1

Yes, you read that right – resurrecting extinct animals.

In theory, the process of de-extinction is possible through several steps, which comprise analysing ancient DNA, genome sequencing, genetic editing and cloning. 2 However, practically, scientists have not been successful in bringing back any extinct species to life, as reported by environment reporter Nick Kilvert from ABC Science3

Since the early 20th century, the idea of reviving extinct species has been explored and attempted. While several scientists support the idea and purpose of de-extinction, others are hesitant. As for us, members of the general public, we should ponder the benefits and consequences of de-extinction and also take a stand on this matter.

Let us consider the words of environmentalist and futurist Stewart Brand, “Humans have created a huge hole in nature […] We have the ability now and maybe the moral obligation to repair some of the damage […] But some species that we killed off totally, we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.” 4

Indeed, several human actions have driven many species into extinction. In the 20th century, the Chiriqui Harlequin frog, Golden toad, and the Splendid Poison frog were among the 90 presumably amphibian species that went extinct due to a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis. 5 In fact, a study found that it was due to globalisation and wildlife trade that enabled the rampant spread of the disease, affecting as many as 600 amphibian species. 5,6 In another example, human destruction of the Rocky Mountain locust’s breeding habitats to convert the land for agricultural use led to their demise. 7 As for the unfortunate plight of the Caribbean monk seal and the Steller’s Sea Cow, both became extinct due to overhunting by humans. 8,9

Imagine if we were to see the beautiful Steller’s Sea Cow again, what a sight that would be! Fortunately for us, bringing back some of these species might be a possibility after all.

According to Professor Emeritus Stanley Temple, an expert on endangered species and wildlife conservation, one group of species that can be considered for de-extinction would be species that had become extinct from overkilling. Since the cause of their extinction has been identified, setting in place regulations to protect the environments they lived in and efforts to conserve these species would allow them to thrive well after bringing them back. Another group of species that may be considered for de-extinction includes extinct species that had played essential roles as keystone species, pollinators, seed dispersers, and whose left-behind ecological partners had suffered in their absence. 10

On the flip side, we need to be mindful that some of these extinct species have been gone for a long time and have left behind communities and/or ecosystems that have moved on without them. Therefore, reintroducing de-extinct species into the environment would trigger a similar effect as invasive species, where the de-extinct species might end up threatening the survival of currently existing species and even replace them entirely. Ironically, bringing back extinct species could push current existing species into extinction!

Current conservation efforts to manage, protect, and restore biodiversity have sought to slow down the rate of species loss in attempts to avoid species extinction. If scientists were to succeed in bringing back extinct species, conservation efforts would lose its value because extinct species could be brought back anytime. In fact, such a mindset could result in a net loss in biodiversity. The concern lies in being overly caught up with reviving extinct species, such that consequently, fewer efforts are allocated towards saving endangered species from being extinct.

On one hand, de-extinction might be considered a distraction because energy, resources, and time are being diverted away from conservation. On the other hand, de-extinction might burden conservation efforts.

We need to bear in mind that revived extinct species face environmental conditions that differ drastically from the time period they previously thrived in. Therefore, bringing these extinct species back may cause them to face “conservation dependency”. As the name suggests, conservation-dependent species are dependent on conservation efforts to prevent them from becoming vulnerable or endangered, and in this case, to avoid being extinct again. Currently, there are existing conservation-dependent species that are extinct in the wild and are being kept in zoos and aquariums. One such example is the Spix’s Macaw, whose natural habitat had been destroyed due to deforestation, and now 60 to 80 individuals are being kept in captivity. 11 Conservation-dependent de-extinct species might end up in the same predicament.

Alternatively, funds might be better utilised if allocated towards the conservation of currently endangered species. Ensuring that currently endangered species continue to have a thriving population and are not threatened by extinction refutes the need to even consider bringing them back.

To adopt the common adage in proactive health management, “prevention is better than cure”. Likewise, “prevention of extinction is better than curing extinction through de-extinction”.

With improvements in science and technology, it does seem indisputable that we ought to use every tool at our disposal to bring extinct species back. However, the very implications of extinction are what motivate us to cherish and conserve the animals that we have today. As Professor Temple forewarns, “One of the urgencies about conservation biology is the idea that there are no second chances. And the precautionary principle tells you that we better not let species go extinct because we are not going to bring them back”.

Whilst we share sentiments in bringing back the animals we miss and love, should we give de-extinction the green light merely for our own fulfilment or do we genuinely want to right our wrongs? [APBN]

About the Author

Vanessa Quek is an Editor at World Scientific Publishing with a major in Life Sciences specialising in Environmental Biology. She was previously involved in the giant clam symbiotic algae research with the Marine Laboratory in Hiroshima University, Japan and conducted her final year project on tropical marine snails with the Experimental Marine Ecology Laboratory at the National University of Singapore.