The Anthropocene—a proposed new geological era defined by human domination of the planet—will be marked by the loss of two-thirds of wildlife on Earth. Just let that settle in a minute.
According to Living Planet Index, this is the reality we will soon be facing. The implications of this loss on our ecosystem will be significant, and have prompted scientists to look into the concept of “de-extinction,” in an effort to bring lost species back to life. Surprisingly, the idea is not far fetched as one might think.
While the idea may prompt thoughts of Jurassic Park, de-extinction is anchored on the premise of bringing back animals that the ecosystem would benefit the from the most (i.e. probably not dinosaurs). And with new advances in gene-editing technology, it might actually be possible.
To that end, ecologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) published guidelines that identify factors for choosing which species our planet would be best served to revive. The UCSB team focuses on three main points:
- Focus on recently extinct animals, rather than species we lost thousands of years ago.
- Select target species from guilds with low functional redundancy
- Only work with species that can be restored to levels of abundance that meaningfully restore ecological function.
Back to Life
Following this criteria, Jurassic Park is surely out of the running. However, the wooly mammoth could be a candidate. This species could potentially convert the Arctic tundra back to grasslands, and slow climate change. Using the DNA editing tool CRISPR, we are now actually a step closer to bringing the wooly mammoth to life. After successfully copying genes from the extinct animal, scientists spliced it into the genome of an Asian elephant.
From the study, published in Popular Science:
The scientists spliced genes for the mammoths’ small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells. The tissue cultures represent the first time woolly mammoth genes have been functional since the species went extinct around 4,000 years ago.
Alongside gene editing, other possible approaches to de-extinction could be backbreeding and cloning.
“Can we thoughtfully use this tool to do real conservation?” one of the authors of the guidelines, UCSB ecologist Douglas McCauley asked. “Answering that question is going to require a lot of perspectives, not only from the geneticists who are leading the process, but also from other types of scientists — ecologists, conservation biologists, ecosystem managers.”
Polarizing opinions regarding this initiative are expected, but they will at least start a conversation among the scientific community as to how researchers can move forward in the most ecologically intelligent way possible.