Monday, May 20, 2013

Waking the Dead: Conservation Ecology vs. Resurrection Biology Debate

Should we bring back extinct species? This was the focus of the recent Revive & Restore Conference (TEDxDeExtinction), a day-long conference this past March, where attendees explored the prospects of bringing extinct species back to life, alongside the attendant ethical and philosophical issues. Who are the key actors? Conservationists, genetic technology practitioners, scientists involved with current species-revival projects, ethicists, grant foundations, and government officials. “TEDxDeExtinction explored a bold topic: reviving extinct species and re-introducing them to the wild. Can it be done responsibly? Should it be done at all?”

The flagship project for de-extinction is the effort to bring the passenger pigeon back to life using cutting-edge techniques in bio-genetics. One of the project leads is Ben Novak, a de-extinction scientist who works on the Revive & Restore project at the Long Now Foundation, who sequenced the DNA of the passenger pigeon.

The extinct passenger pigeon would have some of the genetic code of the passenger pigeon, and likely be raised with other breeds, which leads some to ask whether this would be a “true” passenger pigeon. 

What if we brought back the mammoth, would it be “pure”, would it be “real”? It depends on your definition of both words, and whether it is advantageous to apply problematic concepts likely purity or realness to something as chaotic and diverse as species evolution and genetic science. 
Scientific America reported that, “new technologies such as an enzyme that can precisely cut DNA, known as Cas9(for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-associated system 9) and also derived from a bacterium, may enable scientists to stitch strands of DNA in and out of the genetic code. Find the genes that make a mammoth different from an elephant—say, sebaceous glands, hair growth, extra hemoglobin in the blood to withstand cold temperatures, among other traits—insert those into a strand of elephant DNA, and begin to make mammoth sperm and eggs. Then impregnate the mammoth's closest living relative, the Asiatic elephant, and wait for a baby mammoth to be born.” 
This is the era of the hybrid, where the traditional boundaries between many things are being transgressed: human, animal, plant, and mechanical. Synthetic biology is at the center of hybridity. David Biello noted, “species have always been promiscuous and enjoyed porous boundaries, but synthetic biologists and other scientists seem set to blur those boundaries out of existence.”

Advances in genetics sciences and biology have inevitably intersected in the form of the de-extinction movement; using bio-genetics to bring back extinct species of animals and reintroduce them into ecosystems. I write inevitably in that we were always headed here. Proactive evolutionary practices will become more commonplace in the 21st century as the technological capacities catch-up with scientific curiosity. Growth in nano-bio-genetic technologies is not only transforming human bodies, but also the bio-diversity of the ecosystems we inhabit.

Some calls from conservation biologists have focused on the dire need to protect current habitats and species rather than explore costly scientific research on de-extinction. Others have argued a major issue that bio-genetic-cloning scientific communities have not addressed is the loss of genetic diversity that might lead to inbreeding depression. An additional call of concern is whether we should 
use "genetic techniques to help species that are still with us, but are in trouble. Some species are in a genetic bottleneck—so few individuals remain that their collective genetic make-up is impoverished, making the species highly susceptible to dying out."

Conversely, conservation biologist and former chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society Kent Redford has argued that, "Purity is not found in species," "We ourselves are not pure," bearing traces of genetic intermixing with Neandertals, Denisovans and perhaps other extinct hominids.

It is hard to predict the ripple effects that synthetic biology will have on “natural” ecosystems. Critics have point to the negative effects that genetic engineering has had in agriculture, leading to the diminishing of biodiversity and the loss of tens of thousands of genome diversity from plants.

At the heart of the conservation movement is the need to direct public attention to the consequences of habitat loss. It has been argued that habitat loss is the principal driver of species extinction and endangerment.

"As a human species, we have been amazingly efficient at making things extinct."
Conservation scientist Kate Jones of University College London.
Sadhi et al. provide us a succinct, yet dire, understanding of the consequences of habitat loss.
“Although extinctions are a normal part of evolution, human modiļ¬cations to the planet in the last few centuries, and perhaps even millennia, have greatly accelerated the rate at which extinctions occur. Habitat loss remains the main driver of extinctions, but it may act synergistically with other drivers such as over­harvesting and pollution, and, in the future, climate change. Large-bodied species, rare species, and habitat specialists are particularly prone to extinction as a re­sult of rapid human modiļ¬cations of the planet. Ex­tinctions can disrupt vital ecological processes such as pollination and seed dispersal, leading to cascading losses, ecosystem collapse, and a higher extinction rate overall.”
The monetary funds needed to properly support global conservancy efforts are dramatic. According to Science, protecting all of the world's threatened species will cost an estimated US$4 billion a year. For example, Scientific America has reported that, “improving the status of all the world’s 1,115 threatened bird species would cost between $875 million and $1.23 billion a year for the next decade. Adding in other animals raises the number to between $3.41 billion and $4.76 billion a year.”

So what does this have to do with de-extinction? There is a limited amount of government and private grants to fund ecology-based research. De-extinction is sexy science; conservation is the hard sell.

Science in the 21st century is about proactive creation, iteration, and collaboration. The real

and simulated are one. It is likely we will see interdisciplinary work between de-extinction scientists and conservationists. Gazing ahead, the Jurassic Park theme is not far-fetched – an island as a protected space for scientists (including de-extinctionists) to investigate the limits of bio-genetic-cloning science, and how those advances interact with "naturally" occuring systems. It is interesting to think about “protected free science spaces” coming on the heels of Larry Page’s keynote closer at Google I/O, when he called for the creation of similar spaces in technology. Would this be The Island of Dr. Moreau or an invaluable bio-dome to explore the proactive creation of life through genetics? Probably both, and more. 

There are numerous arguments for and against resurrection biology and de-extinction. The reality: this research is happening, will continue to happen, and we will see incredible breakthroughs. If we create holes in nature; we must try to fill them. And we have created a lot of holes. Will it be the same as it was?…no...but, then again, it never has been the “same.” Stewart Brand (see video below) calls this a moral obligation.

Last note...if sci-fi has taught me anything…we all know where this is cemeteries...revive your bites someone...enter new zombie-human-clone pandemic...mass your spot of the spaceships leaving earth now.

Stewart Brand: The Dawn of De-extinction. Are You ready?

Video Source: TedXDirectorTalks)

Image Source: By J. G. Hubbard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: By Heinemann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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