In Jurassic Park, the film by the great Steven Spielberg released in the 90s, a tycoon decides to build a dinosaur theme park. To achieve this, he invests a lot of money so that scientists can develop a method to recover dinosaur blood stored in the abdomen of mosquitoes that have been trapped in resin. From this blood, the 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 incapable of reproducing 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 techniquestalks to the UNQ Science News Agency, and is categorical in his response: “I don’t know if we can go as far as creating a real Jurassic Park, but today we have the ability to sequence part of the DNA of these animals”.
Cloning as a way to resurrect
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 a pre-existing one, that is, a twin deferred in time. It is to make an identical copy, with the same characteristics of 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 assures that there are concrete projects with financing for the cloning of a mammoth: “Part of the genetic information of this animal is available, so its characteristics could be introduced into existing animals related to it, such as the elephant.” And he exemplifies: “We know that the mammoth had a protein in its blood that acts by transporting oxygen and that allowed it, unlike an elephant, to live in very cold places. In that sense, if we introduce this genetic modification to an elephant, we would be one step away from having an animal more similar to a mammoth”.
Those who object to being able to bring back extinct animals say that the specimens created in the de-extinction process they could end up suffering, either as a result of the processes used or due to their particular genomic variations. The Animal Welfare Act limits precisely this kind of suffering. Beyond physical suffering, some advocates might oppose the elimination of extinction as they oppose zoos, arguing that they exploit animals for unimportant human purposes, such as entertainment.
Secondly, newly extinct creatures could be pathogen vectors and harbor harmful unrecognized endogenous retroviruses. Meanwhile, if the species is released or escapes into the general environment, it could cause considerable damage. Even extinct species that weren’t pests in their past environments might be today.
They are quite similar to the arguments put forward to preserve currently threatened or endangered species. In that direction, de-extinction could provide scientists with the unique opportunity to study living members of previously extinct species (or, at least, close approximations to those species), by providing insights into their functioning and evolution. Some revived species can be translated into useful products.
Also de-extinction could lead to improvements in genetic engineering. Furthermore, some researchers argue that “renaturation” with extant, locally extinct species in particular habitats, can help restore extinct or threatened ecosystems. The rebirth of the woolly mammoth as one of the main grazing animals in the Arctic, for example, could provide substantial benefits by helping to restore an arctic steppe instead of 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 would we want animals that became extinct millions of years ago? First we have to pay off a great 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.