Dead as a Dodo: Could We Bring Animals Back to Life?
If you’ve seen Jurassic Park or just about any other dinosaur-themed story ever, you might have wondered what it might be like if extinct animals could really be brought back from the dead. With rapid advances in genetic technology, this phenomenon may not be limited to fiction for long.
There are some pretty nifty lab processes involved in bringing back extinct species, such as gene editing, artificial selection and cloning. They all have their own ethical complications, but are fascinating and important to science all the same.
Gene editing is concerned with isolating, removing and effectively cut-and-pasting genes from one organism and inserting them into another, within species or to a different species. Certain genes, such as the gene responsible for the long, fluffy hair of the woolly mammoth , can be copied and transferred to the DNA of an individual of a related species (such as the Asian elephant in the case of the woolly mammoth) so that the organism exhibits certain traits– or at least has them embedded in their own DNA. In this way parts of an extinct creature can be ‘brought back to life’ just by selecting certain genes!
Artificial selection, also known as ‘breeding back’ involves choosing selective domestic animals to achieve an animal breed with the traits of an extinct wildtype ancestor. An example of this is the breeding back of the common Zebra to achieve the appearance of the now extinct Quagga, a ‘brown striped zebra’. For this to work the domestic species must be very similar to the extinct species.
Cloning has long been a cause of controversy in the scientific community, as there are many ethical concerns about it. The laboratory process involves taking out the DNA-containing nucleus of the extinct animal and implanting it into a nucleus-removed egg cell of a very similar organism, so that the resultant animal shares identical DNA to its host animal. So far, this has only been done with the now-extinct Pyrenean Ibex, which unfortunately died a few minutes after birth due to a lung defect.
An interference with the course of nature, such as species resurrection, garners a lot of criticism– as is to be expected. The cost of resurrecting even just one species is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, money which could be used for conservation efforts to help prevent endangered animals from facing extinction themselves. Nevertheless, this is an interesting field of science pushing the boundaries of lab based biology—so stay tuned
We can’t promise you’ll be cloning animals anytime soon, but if you’re interested in learning more about what goes on in labs and perhaps someday working in one yourself, check out LTT’s courses on offer here.