Cloning and Extinction
We will bring species back from the dead, and do it remarkably soon.
Advances in trying to use cloning for conversation are wonderful. So, for a start, we’re going off into the world and we’re gathering species and we’re taking samples of their blood and their skin and we’re creating a kind of genetic ark, because we’re accepting that this is a cheap way of trying to gather information on species just before they go over the cusp and into extinction, so it could be really useful in the future. But there are an amalgam of things that we’ve already done on this. The Pyrenees Ibex went extinct back in 1983 and yet a couple of years back they got the hairs – I think it was out of a museum sample, they got the DNA out of it – and wild goats from Spain and they put the DNA into one of those eggs and sure enough they brought it back from the dead. Now the sad news is that it had something wrong with its lungs, it had complications and it died within seven hours, but we’re already living in the era of Jurassic Park, we’ve already done this and nobody seems to realise it; we have brought species back from the dead. And there’s a team in Australia who are on this thing called the Lazarus Project and they’re trying to take it even further and they’ve been working with a frog, another incredible but now sadly extinct species called the gastric brooding frog. And it would swallow its frog spawn, it’d switch off its stomach acids, and the frog spawn would then develop into little baby frogs inside its stomach and it would give birth through its mouth like something out of Alien. And we’ve gotten to the stage now where we have viable embryos, the trouble is just getting them into an egg in something they can take to the next term.
So the problem we’re talking about here is technological, it’s not biological; we will bring species back from the dead, and do it remarkably soon. The sad thing about this is that a lot of people get really excited about this and they think we should bring back things like the mammoth. It’s a ridiculous idea and we should never do it, because for a start, they’re social animals, so you wouldn’t just bring back one mammoth, you’d have to bring back a whole herd. But, more than that, the surrogate mother you’d use in this case is an African elephant, which is also an endangered species, so you’re going to put that African elephant female in danger to try an experiment? I think not. So the likelihood as a first species that we will bring back from the dead are probably species that are currently alive. The threat to our planet’s biodiversity is so, so large, that mechanisms like this genetic ark where they go around gathering DNA of things that are currently alive, they won’t be for long and those will be the ones that we bring back.
We have big problems in the conservation movement if we’re going to start to think of cloning and of bringing things back from the dead, mainly because resources are poor. So put all the eggs in one basket and risk doing the hard science that might not work on bringing something back when there’s other species that are there, still alive, that you should be working with because who knows how long they’re going to last. And whenever you think of coming to things like reintroduction, it gets tricky because the ecosystems have moved on, the world has changed; again, if you were to bring back a mammoth, it’s not going to have the same habitat that it did back then, it’s just not going to work. So, in general, cloning of extinct species is generally kind of pointless. But it might be useful for bringing back a little bit of genetic variance and variability, and that means if you introduce that to a population which is now very stagnant and the population numbers have crashed to a point that they are effectively inbreeding and you get what you call inbreeding depression. There’s so many of the same genes being reiterated that things like disease start becoming much more common, and a good example of this is the Florida panther. It had its populations decimated in Florida, it was really, really struggling, they were developing hare lips and kinks in their tail, they had heart defects, and the way they saved the Florida panther was they actually went and found a relative on the other coast of America, they introduced a couple of females from that other population and the genetic variation was enough to save the species. So it’s no longer a pure Florida panther, but it’s close enough, and it’s got enough of these other varied genes to survive.
It’s tricky when you start thinking of what a species is full stop. So, I’m of the opinion that the Scottish wildcat is extinct and it’s extinct because it’s had so much interbreeding with domestic cats, but many people would disagree with that. And, strange as it is, although the basis of all biology is the understanding of what a species is, it’s one of those things we really don’t have a handle on. The definition we use in schools is that a species is something that can freely and easily interbreed with other members of its own group. But if we look at something like a polar bear, we know that polar bears have been interbreeding with grizzly bears in the north of Alaska and Northern Canada and they’ve been producing a hybrid called the grolarbear, so if its dad’s a grizzly and mum’s a polar bear, it’s a grolar bear and if it’s the other way round, it’s a prizzly bear, but we also now know there are second generation grolar and prizzly bears, so these are not sterile hybrids, the genes are moving on. And it’s another threat, actually, to things like polar bears because you’re having them diluted, you’re losing some of the distinctiveness, the biological uniqueness, and the grolar bears are not as good at being a polar bear as a polar bear is and they’re not as good at being a grizzly bear as a grizzly bear is. And we have to ask ourselves if this is a good thing or a bad thing. If it’s a good thing, it’s a good thing because it’s preserving a little bit of the polar bear DNA, the world is holding on to bits of bear. If it’s a bad thing, it’s because it’s going to be another wasted opportunity of creating a pure breed. We just don’t know.