Bringing extinct species back to life

by on February 27, 2014 at 9:34 am in History, Science | Permalink

It will happen, in fact it has already happened and more than ten years ago:

Novak is tall, solemn, polite and stiff in conversation, until the conversation turns to passenger pigeons, which it always does. One of the few times I saw him laugh was when I asked whether de-extinction might turn out to be impossible. He reminded me that it has already happened. More than 10 years ago, a team that included Alberto Fernández-Arias (now a Revive & Restore adviser) resurrected a bucardo, a subspecies of mountain goat also known as the Pyrenean ibex, that went extinct in 2000. The last surviving bucardo was a 13-year-old female named Celia. Before she died — her skull was crushed by a falling tree — Fernández-Arias extracted skin scrapings from one of her ears and froze them in liquid nitrogen. Using the same cloning technology that created Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, the team used Celia’s DNA to create embryos that were implanted in the wombs of 57 goats. One of the does successfully brought her egg to term on July 30, 2003. “To our knowledge,” wrote the scientists, “this is the first animal born from an extinct subspecies.” But it didn’t live long. After struggling to breathe for several minutes, the kid choked to death.

There is more here, interesting throughout.  One risk is that these newly recreated animals may turn out to be efficient carriers of modern diseases.  And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…? And here is a legal perspective:

In “How to Permit Your Mammoth,” published in The Stanford Environmental Law Journal, Norman F. Carlin asks whether revived species should be protected by the Endangered Species Act or regulated as a genetically modified organism. He concludes that revived species, “as products of human ingenuity,” should be eligible for patenting.

And are they really the same animals after all, given the imperfections in the process of cloning and recreation?  The philosopher might say this:

“I would like to have an elephant that likes the cold weather,” he told me. “Whether you call it a ‘mammoth’ or not, I don’t care.”

I say we would be wise to exercise option value on this one, but of course the incentives of scientists are to do something first.

dangerman February 27, 2014 at 9:44 am

“revived species, “as products of human ingenuity,” should be eligible for patenting.”

Hmm, looks like a nice incentive to kill them all off if you know you can be the first to clone them.

john personna February 27, 2014 at 11:31 am

In response to Tyler’s question, the New Mammoth should have a gene-tag, so that your New Mammoth (pat. pend.) is different than my Mammoth 2.0 (also pat. pend.).

I think there was a problem in engineered microbes, that your insulin producing e-coli (pat. pend.) was the only insulin producing e-coli, blocking others. Now, I think (or hope) that if I do the work from scratch and make my InsiColi I am clear. (expert input invited)

jtf February 27, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Not quite; most patent strategies are more subtle than that. You’re faced with two constraints: first, you need to know the pathway to produce a specific target molecule (which is most often derived from a natural pathway and is therefore the only realistic way of getting there) and second you need to find an alternative workaround that isn’t patented. In reality a company with a big genetic engineering portfolio like Monsanto does is that it does everything it can to ensure that the pathway it uses isn’t well known in the public domain, limiting the best information to patent disclosure. Next, it patents all known routes to a critical intermediate for the purposes of, say, making a plant roundup-ready while keeping all subsequent intermediates and ways of getting there as trade secrets. When those patents look like they might expire or a researcher is getting close to the next step, they go ahead and patent that, too. By filing narrow patents they are able to effectively extend patent protection indefinitely unless someone’s willing to invest the time or money to make an entirely synthetic route. Since we’re barely at the stage where we can synthesize genetic material at the length and precision needed and still have it inserted into a model organism, it gives a company outsize punch as long as it gets there first.

dangerman February 28, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Hmm, got any links showing this type of use of the patent system?

Max Factor February 27, 2014 at 9:46 am

“And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…?”

Increased traffic at zoos and animal theme parks. People would be very excited to see some of these long lost animals.

Norman Pfyster February 27, 2014 at 10:40 am

I think I saw this movie.

david February 27, 2014 at 11:50 am

And now I’m humming the theme. Damn you.

tt31 February 27, 2014 at 10:43 am

Possibly more stories like this: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/the-blood-harvest/284078/. Not that the article suggests this is what is driving things.

M. February 27, 2014 at 11:18 am

Well, maybe it’s time to recognize economics is not everything and should never have been.

Therapsid February 27, 2014 at 9:46 am

“I say we would be wise to exercise option value on this one, but of course the incentives of scientists are to do something first.”

Tyler, you embody all of the risk aversion which has made the great stagnation possible in the first place.

“And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…?”

I’d say anyone who can populate a theme park with mammoths and other charismatic extinct animals could make some money. They made a book and movie about a similar scenario, but they gave in to the same hand-waving fear mongering that you fall prey to.

Kabal February 27, 2014 at 9:46 am

“And the economic benefits of re-creating extinct species are…?”

Have you not seen/read Jurassic Park?

Roy February 27, 2014 at 9:49 am

Heck, I’m even up for just importing indian elephants, the mammoths nearest cousin, but then that isn’t much different from importing ostriches, llamas, the mustang, or camels to Australia. Actually it is closest to mustangs since their very near cousins have only been extinct for about 12k years. There is still widowed flora in the Americas surviving as relicts. Was it wrong to bring bison back or restore the red wolf?

As to bringing mammoths back, what exact disease are they going to carry? And while birds carry disease, I don’t see why a passenger pigeon or what have you will be any worse.

The main problems with mammoths are they must have had a huge range, so will we have properties big enough for them, and more importantly, who will teach them mammoth culture? Imagine humans being restored as clones long after we went extinct?

Keith February 27, 2014 at 11:42 am

Good points. Northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia have plenty of space, and the right environment for mammoths.

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 9:57 am

Let’s bring back the Neanderthals. They aren’t humans — they’re basically smart apes. Smart enough to do simple manual labor, but not much else. We could use them for farm labor, and cut our dependence on illegal aliens. And we wouldn’t have to pay them. There’s quite a viable business model there.

Z February 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

That would free the rest of us up for mining bitcoins.

Marian Kechlibar February 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

Why do you think that the Neanderthals would be as docile as contemporary Homo sapiens? It seems that many hominides, including the early anatomically modern humans, were as aggressive as the common chimpanzee.

Baphomet February 27, 2014 at 10:43 am

Nevertheless, we successfully killed them off, remember.

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Never heard of shock collars?

Thelonious_Nick February 27, 2014 at 11:38 am

Neanderthals were human. They were capable of breeding with humans and producing viable offspring–that’s the definition of being the same species. They were also a lot smarter than you think.

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm

A Republican Supreme Court would see it my way.

TMC February 27, 2014 at 1:31 pm

The part that outlawed slavery would approve of this?

TMC February 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm

The party…

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

It’s not slavery because Neanderthals don’t have souls.

Albigensian February 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Whatever the capabilities of Neanderthals, they’d almost certainly acquire legal personhood, in the USA and most or all other countries.

If they’re capable of interbreeding with us then biologically they’re the same species but even if they can’t they’d shortly acquire full legal rights. If they were as capable as we then there might be few problems (except for the possible existence of eliminationist racism in both species).

But even if they were greatly deficient they’d still acquire full rights; after all, we don’t deny legal personhood to those of us who are severely deficient. Which means the fantasy of using them as “intellligent apes” is unlikely; more likely that we’d be responsible for supporting them.

In any case, recreating Neanderthals would surely produce far more issues (legal and otherwise) than recreating passenger pigeons.

Although if passenger pigeons are possible, why not dodos?

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 4:44 pm

If Neanderthals are too smart, we should go back to Homo erectus or some other more clearly non-human apes.

Dodos are reputed to have tasted terrible. There’s no practical use for them.

Dick King February 28, 2014 at 11:47 am

They could interbreed with us, but not with high fertility.

Neanderthals probably have 48 chromosomes like the rest of the great apes including chimpanzees. We’re likely unique in having our chromosome 2 being the fusion of two great ape chromosomes 2A and 2B .

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/04/21/basics-how-can-chromosome-numb/

-dk

Donald Pretari February 27, 2014 at 10:06 am

“F. Carlin asks whether revived species should be protected by the Endangered Species Act or regulated as a genetically modified organism. He concludes that revived species, “as products of human ingenuity,” should be eligible for patenting.”

“Products of human ingenuity” makes me think of George Carlin.

Nate February 27, 2014 at 10:14 am

The ibex story reminds me of these delightful illustrations:
https://medium.com/futures-exchange/239b97b1015

dan February 27, 2014 at 10:16 am

I saw E.O. Wilson give a talk at Duke recently, and someone asked him about this afterwards. He brought up the point that these species went extent for a reason – habitat loss, invasive species, poaching, etc. So you could bring these species back, but without addressing the underlying reasons of why they went extinct in the first place, they’re not going to be able to survive outside of zoos as a novelty. Hardly seems worth it to me, especially given how many species there are on the verge of extinction that we’re not putting in any real effort to save.

Brian Donohue February 27, 2014 at 10:23 am

You can add ‘not knowing enough to get out of the way of a falling tree…’

J* February 27, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Brilliant comment.

ummm February 27, 2014 at 10:32 am

that isn’t a new concern. the science behind the process is more interesting than whether of not it’s practical.

chuck martel February 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

It’s an example of the human yearning for stasis. Nothing’s supposed to change. While some people fret about extinct species, others (or maybe the same ones) freak over “invasive” species, like all organisms are supposed to stay in their established niche and not move around and upset the “balance of nature”.

lxm February 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I agree.

And it appears we are working hard to kill others. Here’s an article about 10 million scallops that died due to acidification: http://www.pqbnews.com/news/247092381.html

I like scallops. I will be sorry to see them go.

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 4:50 pm

If global warming is really going to happen, bringing back the dinosaurs would be a way of getting ahead of the trend. We’re going to need to eat something. As long as USDA keeps it illegal for Creekstone Farms to test their cattle for mad cow disease, I’d rather eat a brontosaurusburger than any form of U.S. beef.

msgkings February 27, 2014 at 5:50 pm

You could always try organic, grass fed beef which is really tasty and very healthy. But then again, dirty hippies do that.

RPLong February 27, 2014 at 10:37 am

Cat’s out of the bag. Bring it on, I say.

chuck martel February 27, 2014 at 10:48 am

A tangent thought in this subject is the way most contemporary western humans look at animals versus the viewpoint of past and current hunter-gatherers. Except for household pets and race horses, moderns only look at animals collectively. The environmentally concerned residents of Phoenix are interested in the survival of the Mexican grey wolf in Arizona and New Mexico in the abstract, as a collective wolf population. The ranchers of the White Mountains look at the wolves as individuals that they’re feeding with their calves and lambs. While the maybe ancestors of the transplanted wolves once lived in what’s now central Phoenix, there’s no effort to transplant them there because even the environmentally concerned know that won’t work. But conditions can’t be that much different than they once were out in the mountains so let’s drop them off there, put blaze orange collars on them so they won’t get run over by trucks full of lettuce bound for NYC and everything will be neat. Nobody thinks much about the life of the individual wolf wearing the collar and dodging the truck on I-40. He’s a concept, not an individual organism.

Therapsid February 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Animal rights activists look at animals as individuals. Incidentally, this is where animal rights and animal welfare advocates clash with environmentalists.

People tend to identify the two movements, but environmentalists love mass slaughter of invasive species like wild pigs but animal rights activists are militantly opposed.

Mark February 27, 2014 at 11:20 am

>One risk is that these newly recreated animals may turn out to be efficient carriers of modern diseases.

Isn’t this an example of losses looming larger than gains? Aren’t there many examples of medicines and such being derived from different plants/animals. Without consulting a biologist, is there a reason to think the prior of new disease is higher than the prior for new medicine?

Axa February 27, 2014 at 11:54 am

About the utility of the proposed objective (passenger pigeon revival) is almost null beyond circus attraction and emotional/aesthetic gains. Life, as we know it, is supported by boring and not cute microorganisms and plants. Big mammals and birds may disappear, but as long photosynthesis and organic decomposition keep going on, nothing changes.

eddie February 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm

“emotional/aesthetic gains”

What else do you think utility is?

Mark Thorson February 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

No, they would have utility as food. They went extinct for a reason — apparently they were a good eatin’ bird. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act specifies pigeons as a game bird, so the Department of the Interior could allow them to be hunted once their numbers had built up enough to support an annual take. Consider the alligator — once endangered, but now you can order farmed and wild alligator meat on-line.

Keith February 27, 2014 at 11:57 am

“One risk is that these newly recreated animals may turn out to be efficient carriers of modern diseases. And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…?”

There is some evidence to suggest that the extinction of the Heath Hen in 1932 enabled a boom in the tick population in the East Coast of the US. The tick population became big enough to harbor and spread the Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Bringing back the Heath Hen would therefore reduce modern human diseases and produce economic benefits because society would no longer incur the costs of Lyme disease.

Your questions are good ones, but it is important to ask the opposite questions.

Edward Burke February 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

Per strannikov in his lexicographic mode:

“De-extinction: the brief stage intermediate to extinction and re-extinction.”

Keith February 27, 2014 at 12:07 pm

One last thought I had is this isn’t restricted to animals. This organization, http://www.acf.org/, is bringing back the American Chestnut. Restoring this keystone tree would have many economic benefits including high quality lumber and tasty chestnuts. They are accepting donations….

prognostication February 27, 2014 at 6:13 pm

I am a big fan of their work, but it’s worth adding that the American Chestnut isn’t extinct. The species suffers from an invasive pest that prevents the trees from ever reaching full maturity, but they do still exist, even in the wild. Also, ACF aren’t exactly recreating the American Chestnut so much as hybridizing over and over to get something that looks and functions like an American Chestnut but has the pest resistance of other chestnut species.

Brian Donohue February 27, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Interesting chestnut.

AndrewL February 27, 2014 at 12:15 pm

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/fda-panel-debates-technique-that-would-create-embryos-with-three-genetic-parents/2014/02/25/60371c58-9e4d-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html

Suppose you could patent this technique to produce disease free humans. would the people who were born this way be allowed to pass on this “human ingenuity” without having to license their own genes from the patent holder first?

EnerGeoPolitics February 27, 2014 at 12:57 pm

“And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…?”

You can charge a fee to any landowner whose construction or expansion plans are being held up by challenges based on the Endangered Species Act.

Although, as this scheme gets applied, it will simply increase pressure so simply repeal the soon-to-be anachronistic act altogether.

Alexei Sadeski February 27, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Wonder how the Montana farmers will welcome a bunch of elephants trampling on their crops.

eddie February 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm

They’ll shoot them in their pajamas.

msgkings February 27, 2014 at 1:57 pm

How they got into their pajamas they’ll never know

RPLong February 27, 2014 at 2:26 pm

LOL well done.

Let’s bring Groucho back first, then work on the woolly mammoth.

msgkings February 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm

+1000

Edward Burke February 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm

“Nature” without the red claws and teeth: what will we think of next?

Nick_L February 27, 2014 at 2:35 pm

I’m looking forward to the mammoth jokes, myself. How do you shoot a red mammoth..?.

Luis Pedro Coelho February 28, 2014 at 10:05 am

“And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…?”

Why should they be different from the benefits of keeping extant species from going extinct?

Ed March 12, 2014 at 10:38 am

Given the complaints about keeping elephants and orcas in captivity, would the environmentalist and PETA folks demand that cloned mammoths be set free?

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