9 May 2017

De-extinction is coming, but don’t expect a real-life Jurassic Park

2:46 pm on 9 May 2017

We could always use moa.


A moa skeleton.

A moa skeleton. Photo: Flickr / Patrick Bürgler

In an early Superman comic, supervillain Lex Luther creates a clone of the man of steel. The copy - dubbed ‘Bizzaro’ - is a flawed imitation that tries to emulate Superman, but ends up causing chaos in Metropolis.

The moral still holds true.

The online science journal Functional Ecology has just published a series of papers on cloning and genetically resurrecting extinct species. Guest editor Professor Philip Seddon of Otago University predicts extinct creatures will be brought back in the next 10 years.

"Pretty soon we're going to see something we never thought we would again."

However, it comes with a warning.

“You wouldn’t get back exactly what you lost. You'd be creating a very close version of an animal, but there would be slight differences,” he says.

“The first clone is going to have to be raised by a surrogate mother of another subspecies and would develop some of its DNA - they may end up behaving and interacting with others in completely different ways.”

Professor Seddon is a world-leading researcher in de-extinction. He says "the reality of the idea is too sexy to ignore", and the technology close to being perfected.

Professor Phillip Seddon.

Professor Phillip Seddon. Photo: Otago University

He says a good place to start would be the South Island kōkako, a bird thought to be either extinct or barely hanging on. There’s currently a $5000 bounty for anyone who can confirm one is still alive.

The North Island kōkako would do just fine as a surrogate mother.

There’s also Maui’s dolphins, of which only a few dozen remain. “We shouldn’t wait for something to go extinct. We could use this technology to bolster a dwindling population.”

He argues genetic engineering should only target species that have recently gone extinct, rather than those that existed centuries ago such as the moa or dodo. There are no cryogenically preserved cells for them.

It’s why a real-life Jurassic Park wouldn’t be feasible.

“You would be piecing together your best guess of a moa or a dodo's genetic code from museum specimens,” says Professor Seddon.

“It would be like trying to read a book that's been left out in the rain. There would be only fragments of readable text as whole passages would have been washed away.”

He says people tend to get caught up on bringing back “charismatic vertebrates like wooly mammoths and exotic birds”, but it’s more important to look for a species that left a big gap in its ecosystem.

“There might be new ecological threats to older extinct species that have arisen - you don't want to bring something back only for it to go extinct again - or that species could prove a fatal threat to others.”

An illustration of moa.

An illustration of moa. Photo: Wikipedia / Heinrich Harder

Professor Seddon says more and more de-extinction projects will be pursued in the next 10 years by people driven by aesthetic, commercial or scientific motivations.

Every year technology becomes increasingly powerful and de-extinction becomes more possible. “You could argue we’ve already done it.”

In 2003, a bucardo, a type of Spanish goat, was successfully resurrected.

“Some cells were taken from the last female - which proved timely as the next year a tree branch fell on her head and ‘bye bye bucardo’,” says Professor Seddon.

“The DNA from those cells were injected into a donor cell from a common goat, which was then turned into an embryo, which was planted into another goat.”

The clone lived only minutes, but it proved the first time an extinct animal was recreated.

If de-extinction were to eventually become commonplace, Professor Seddon says it must be treated with caution.

“Conservation is built around the idea that extinction is forever. There is a danger that cloning would change that perception and potentially undermine public support for preserving endangered species,” he says.

“We can’t think ‘oh, we can let it go extinct because we can bring it back later'.”

He says it’s also more cost-effective to prevent species from dying off in the first place.

“Extinction is still the ultimate threshold - once you've lost something you can never exactly bring it back.”