Sci&Tech Writer Amy Frith explores the potential for resurrecting extinct species, and how realistic a goal this really is

Written by Amy Frith
Images by Frida Lannerström

The planet is currently experiencing what many scientists believe to be the sixth mass extinction, with an accelerated increase in species and biodiversity loss occurring due to issues of climate change and global warming. Many significant species such as the Tasmanian tiger and the dodo have already been lost, and a further 75% of Earth’s species are predicted to become extinct in the next 300 years if the situation does not change. With this threat of extinction comes challenges with regards to the conservation strategies required to minimise such loss. The current plan is to maintain biodiversity and protect currently endangered species to prevent future extinctions, but new science techniques bring forward more controversial strategies. One such strategy is the idea of ‘resurrecting’ extinct species. But is this even possible, and if so, is it worth considering or is it just too unrealistic?

75% of Earth’s species are predicted to become extinct in the next 300 years if the situation does not change

An example of such a project as described in The Guardian, is the recent study by a US gene editing firm that is attempting to ‘de-extinct’ the iconic Mauritian dodo, more than 300 years after its human induced extinction. Gene editing techniques allow scientists to find and reassemble key traits of the dodo genome, using and modifying the genetic material of pigeon eggs to do so. Plans to de-extinct Australian marsupials such as the Tasmanian tiger are also under operation, with a multimillion-dollar project aiming to use stem cells to create thylacine cells and an embryo, to be transferred into an artificial womb or surrogate. 

Time, monetary and ethical constraints make resurrecting extinct species an unrealistic goal

Such novel experiments are not only technically difficult, but also present an ethical dilemma concerning the use of animals for research purposes. Although, with the dodo project the use of an egg laying bird bypasses the need to implant material into a mammalian reproductive system and impregnate a donor, it may still be unnecessarily stressful for the experimental subject, with a likely low success rate. Gene editing is also extremely expensive, with the dodo project requiring at least £121 million in funding to go ahead. In an ideal world, it would be amazing to be able to not only ‘de-extinct’ species lost, but also protect those still surviving, but in reality, time, monetary and ethical constraints make this a likely unrealistic goal. Furthermore, the resurrection of a past species does not guarantee its success and continued survival in today’s climate. It may be recreated only to become extinct almost immediately. Perhaps the money to fund these de-extinction projects could be better spent conserving the 75% of species that may soon become extinct, before it is too late.

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