In Jurassic Park, a film by the great Steven Spielberg released in the 90s, a tycoon decides to build a dinosaur theme park. For this, he invests a lot of money for scientists to develop a method that allows the recovery of dinosaur blood stored in the abdomen of mosquitoes that were trapped in resin. From this blood, DNA is isolated and the information that the passage of time would have deteriorated is filled in with amphibian DNA. Once the DNA is complete, the only thing left to do is clone the organism and give birth to females unable to reproduce with each other. How much of everything that happens in the famous movie is replicable by non-fiction science?
Daniel Salamone, veterinarian and researcher at Conicet, specialist in cloning and assisted reproduction techniquestalk to the UNQ science news agencyand is categorical in his response: “I don’t know if we can go so far as to create a real Jurassic Park, but today we have the ability to sequence part of the DNA of these animals.”
Cloning as a way to resuscitate
The cloning technique opens up new possibilities. Salamone explains that it is a process that uses the genetic material of a living being to create an identical copy. In essence, it seeks to copy something that nature had already created. “Animal cloning is the creation of a twin animal to an existing one, that is, a twin deferred in time. It’s making an identical copy, with the same characteristics as a twin, but many years later.” Unlike genetic modification, cloning does not produce changes in the DNA sequence, but genetic modifications could be used so that some current animals have characteristics of animals already extinct.
The Argentine specialist guarantees that there are concrete projects with funding for the cloning of a mammoth: “Part of the genetic information of this animal is available, so that its characteristics can be introduced into existing animals related to it, such as the elephant”. He exemplifies: “We know that the mammoth had in its blood a protein that works by transporting oxygen and that allowed it, unlike an elephant, to live in very cold places. In that regard, if we introduced this genetic modification into an elephant, we would be one step closer to having an animal more like a mammoth.”
Those who oppose being able to bring back extinct animals say that specimens created in the process of extinction may end up suffering, either by the processes used, or by their particular genomic variations. The Animal Welfare Act limits precisely this kind of suffering. In addition to physical suffering, some advocates may oppose elimination from extinction as they oppose zoos, arguing that they exploit animals for unimportant human ends, such as entertainment.
On the other hand, newly extinct creatures can be pathogen vectors and harbor harmful unrecognized endogenous retroviruses. Meanwhile, if the species is released or escapes into the general environment, it can cause considerable damage. Even extinct species that were not pests in their past environments may be today.
They are quite similar to the arguments put forward to preserve currently threatened or endangered species. In this direction, de-extinction could provide scientists with the unique opportunity to study living members of previously extinct species (or at least approximations of these species), providing insights into their functioning and evolution. Some revived species can be translated into useful products.
De-extinction could also lead to improvements in genetic engineering. Furthermore, some researchers argue that “renaturation” with existing and locally extinct species in specific habitats, can help restore extinct or threatened ecosystems. The renaissance of the woolly mammoth as one of the Arctic’s main grazing animals, for example, could provide substantial benefits by helping to restore an arctic steppe rather than the less ecologically rich tundra.
For Salamone, the big question is: “If we don’t have the ability to preserve the animals that exist today, why do we want animals that went extinct millions of years ago? First, we have to pay a big debt, which is to preserve the species that exist today”, he concludes.
It is crucial, then, that humans reduce the causes of extinction, including habitat destruction, pollution and climate change.