Scientists could soon use genetic technology to re-create extinct species, according to an environmental activist speaking at the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference.
Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, said the technology exists to reconstruct in a laboratory the genome of extinct animals. Brand said Wednesday in Long Beach, California, that “de-extinction” could restore organisms and habitats that humans have harmed or destroyed.
The technology has already been tried out, according to Brand. In 2009, a team of scientists from the University of Zaragoza in Spain re-created an extinct species of ibex called a bucardo, but the animal died minutes after birth due to a lung defect.
What Brand’s really talking about is cloning. At this point, cloning is a dicey, hit-or-miss business — mostly miss.
In the case of the ibex experiment, the researchers used frozen cells from the last known living bucardo to create 439 ibex-goat hybrids by inserting skin cell DNA into the egg cells of goats.
Fifty-seven of the embryos were implanted in goat surrogate mothers. Seven of them took, and only one came to term, the one that died shortly after birth.
That’s actually better than cloning attempts just a few years earlier, when thousands of attempts might have been necessary to get one viable embryo.
A big part of the reason for the improvements in cloning technology, by the way, is all that government money spent on embryonic stem cell research. While embryonic stem cells have yet to produce any of the publicly promised cures, the research has involved repeated cloning of human embryos, which are then destroyed in the process of harvesting the cells.
(Because government funding never seems to go to study adult stem cells, which actually are of some medical use, it raises the question of whether funding the embryonic research wasn’t all along about developing techniques for human cloning. But that’s another discussion.)
Other clones have been similarly difficult to produce and have been plagued with health problems, including shortened life spans. Dolly the sheep was euthanized at 6 years old because of severe arthritis and a progressive lung disease. Premature death, pneumonia, rapid aging and liver problems have shown up in other cloned animals.
A cloned cat named CC was born in 2001, the only embryo brought to term of 87 implanted. CC seems to have been unusual in that she didn’t suffer any abnormal conditions, according to researchers.
Despite past failures with cloning, there’s currently a group of Harvard researchers trying to resurrect the passenger pigeon. And let’s not forget the researcher who’s looking for a volunteer to be surrogate mom to a Neanderthal.
Playing around with cloning farm animals and pets is all fine and Frankensteinian, but there seems to be an increased interest of late in bringing back extinct species.
Such schemes usually are proposed by self-described environmentalists, which is odd because it seems someone who respects nature shouldn’t be so willing to tamper with it.
Resurrecting species that have died out because they couldn’t cut it and trying to restore habitats to some vision of perfection seems like one of the dumbest ways to mess with nature, potentially worse than any oil-drilling operation or powerplant.
“Humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years,” Brand said. “We have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage.”
I’m all for conscientious management of natural resources. But somehow it never occurs to the self-appointed nature police that people are part of the environment too, and maybe the best thing for the Earth is to let it do what it’s good at and adapt to us.