In February 2017, scientists announced plans to create a live wooly mammoth in the next 24 months through a process known as de-extinction. When a plant or animal goes extinct, then every member of that species has died. Some of these animals are quite famous, like the Tasmanian tiger and the Mauritius dodo bird.
De-extinction makes it possible to bring an extinct species back to life through the DNAL cloning process. The team that wants to bring back the wooly mammoth, which includes George Church of Harvard University, will use DNA taken from the bodies of the animals trapped in permafrost or ice for up to 10,000 years. Then they plan to mix that genetic information with that of the ancient animal’s closest relative, the Asian elephant.
DNA has a half-life of 521 years, which means it is only 50% viable after that amount of time. Since the last known living wooly mammoth died at least 4,000 years ago, the only way to resurrect the animal is to use a current one. The dodo and the Tasmanian tiger might have different results.
List of the Pros of De-Extinction
1. It would give us access to a bevy of new scientific information.
Many of the animals that have gone extinct on our planet passed away before modern science developed. That means we are left with illustrations and observations from those who were alive at the time. Using the de-extinction process to bring them back would allow us to gain more insights into how our world works. This work could help us to discover how the processes of evolution work, what natural resources were once available, and additional information that is not currently available to us.
2. There could be environmental benefits to consider with de-extinction.
There are several damaged and threatened ecosystems throughout the world that struggle because of plant or animal extinction. If we follow this process, then the advantage to consider includes restoration. By creating the balance in the biome once again that nature needs, we could see several environmental benefits begin to develop. It could help to reduce or eliminate some of the issues that we are encountering in the world today when there are too many predators or too much prey.
3. It provides a unique opportunity to experience the past.
For Generation X’ers, Baby Boomers and even some Millennials, the only experience they have with the past are pictures that are in textbooks. Everyone knows what a wooly mammoth is and when they lived, but that is a different experience than contemplating the idea of creating a new one. There is a definite advantage to consider when getting to hang out with the species that have been gone for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. To see them alive and kicking again would be a tremendous accomplishment for humanity.
4. We can provide a measure of justice for the planet.
There are several species that have encountered extinction because of human activities, including poaching. If we are the ones that have pushed specific animals and plants past the brink of destruction, then proponents suggest that there is an equal responsibility to fix the problem. We might owe it to those that have passed on to bring them back as a way to provide a sense of justice for our behaviors.
5. It gives us the foundation for more technological advances.
The 100-year Starship Program is a process that does more than look at the idea of building a vessel that can travel throughout our solar system. It encourages the development of new technologies and processes that would make such a journey possible. We could experience the same advantage when working toward the restoration of species through de-extinction. The genetic engineering process could develop tremendously when our emphasis is on the restoration of a specific species, much like Church’s team with the wooly mammoth.
6. The information generated from de-extinction would help us preserve more species.
The techniques that we use to bring back extinct animals can apply to our threatened and endangered species as well. It would be a way to help us bring back genetics to a plant or animal gene line so that the risk of a bottleneck is severely reduced. Although there are certainly some risks to consider with this practice, we could apply the technology to various improvements in animal health too. Imagine birds that can’t catch the flu or animals that could provide anti-cancer genes.
List of the Cons of De-Extinction
1. This process continues the issue of exploitation.
One of the primary reasons why animals have gone extinct in modern times is because humans have exploited them. There are several plants that have gone through the same process. If we begin the work of de-extinction, then are we not still exploiting life for purposes that are solely ours? Critics suggest that the idea of bringing back species could cause even more harm to them and our planet, even if they are some biome balancing benefits that could begin to appear over time.
2. There is the threat of new disease with de-extinction.
When an entire species goes extinct, then the diseases that impacted their health disappear from the planet. Going through the process of de-extinction could cause some of the pathogens, bacteria, or viruses to come back with them. We have no way of knowing if there would be human contagions associated with some of the creatures, especially if they come from the ancient world. Although it is a tragedy that many species have gone extinct over time, it may be safer for human health to avoid this area of science altogether.
3. It may not change biomes or environments for the better.
If we can immediately restore an extinct species to its usual environment, then there is the potential to maintain homeostasis there. When there are several hundred years that have passed before the de-extinction process occurs, then the results could be very different. The returning species would be potentially alien to the environment because of the natural evolutionary process. Some might even act as an invasive species. Habitats change over time. Food sources may not even be available to some returning plants or animals. That means their roles in the new ecosystems would change too.
4. This work could change scientific priorities in other fields.
Our current work in most fields involves looking at how the current environment can help us all to live healthy lives. If we progress toward work that involves de-extinction, then our priorities in conservation or medical research might shift. Critics suggest that there would be no reason to start funding endangered species programs because we could restore them if they become extinct for some reason. There would likely be a whole set of complicated legal issues with this practice as well, with the costs of litigation potentially higher than the work needed to bring back plants or animals that have passed away already.
5. There could be unforeseen consequences to these actions.
The idea of de-extinction to some is simple science, but to others, this practice is one that is comparable to playing God. Is it wrong to bring something back that is no longer present on our planet? The unforeseen consequences that could happen when animals like the wooly mammoth come back could put our planet on the brink of turmoil. It may even impact how each of us approaches life. We are already seeing industries pop up that offer to clone your dog or cat for you. Could humans be next?
6. De-extinction could cause even more species to go extinct.
In a review of the key points of de-extinction for New Zealand, writer Jenna Small notes for Science Glory that there are new risks that would occur for our current species with this process. “To resurrect New Zealand’s 11 extinct species, three times as many endangered species would go extinct,” she writes. “…[T]he cost to bring back five extinct species from New South Wales could help to preserve up to 42 living species.”
The cost of de-extinction is a significant disadvantage that is not always discussed. Estimated conservation costs for the warblers on Chatham Island is somewhere near $400,000. That expense is significantly less than what it would take to go through the de-extinction process.
7. It would force the new animals to live in captivity.
When we look at the de-extinction process, the reality of this work is that each animal born from it will already be in captivity. Even Church’s wooly mammoth team admits that the goal of the program, if successful, would be to keep the animals with their Asian elephant parents in zoos until they were old enough to establish herds in the colder climate areas of the planet.
We also know that it is an exceptionally slow process. The 24-month deadline to create a wooly mammoth has come and gone without full success. The next steps that Church’s team must take are to reprogram the fibroblasts into induced pluripotent cells and development tissue types that help them to study the impact of mammoth mutations on cell traits.
The idea of bringing back extinct species is exciting. It is a scientific accomplishment that could change the world in many positive ways. There is also a lot of work that we must still do before we can produce the first generation of any species that has already passed away.
We have so far been quite unsuccessful with our efforts in this scientific field, but progress is happening. A 2009 effort to bring back a Pyrenean Ibex resulted in a live birth, although the animal died shortly after due to several birth defects in its lungs.
When we carefully examine the pros and cons of de-extinction, it is clear that there are open-ended conclusions that both sides can draw upon as they make their argument. There may be a day when this work is inevitable. That means the question involves a “can we” vs. a “should we” debate where individual perspectives will vary, and no definitive conclusion may ever become available.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.