With mass extinction upon us, some scientists are working on bringing certain species back from the dead. But their ability to do so raises ethical and practical issues. Are we playing God? Could this process go terribly wrong? Should we focus on conservation instead or in tandem with de-extinction? If we do de-extinct some species, which ones should we bring back? Three scientists, Michael Archer, Douglas McCauley, and Susan Haig, all experts in the field of de-extinction, discuss the science, the progress, and the ethical and practical concerns of bringing back to life species that have gone extinct with Maria Armoudian.
Michael Archer is a Professor in the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales. He is a paleontologist and is the co-author of Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution.
Douglas McCauley is a Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an expert in ecology and ecosystems.
Susan Haig is a Senior Scientist at the US Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Centre. She is an expert in wildlife ecology and is the co-author of The Population Ecology and Conservation of Charadrius Plovers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Amroudian: Perhaps the best place to start is why we even have to consider de-extinction?
Susan Haig: The world is facing unprecedented levels of extinction rates at this moment. In geological time, there has never been a time in history where we have lost so many species at such a rapid rate, so I think that has spurred on people to be concerned. And with the advent of new technology, it is amazing what we can accomplish now with trying to bring species back, so I think the combination of the two has really set the stage for what is turning out to be a bit of a scientific revolution.
MA: I think it was in Nature you wrote a piece laying out what it means when we lose certain species and what is behind them all, for example, the natural environment, what it provides for us, food, water, energy, and medicine, and yet we have a growing population. How would you describe this phenomenon?
SH: Well, there are extinctions occurring in every part of the world. Climate change [and] human over-population are causing a lot of species to go extinct, and of course, there are natural extinctions. First of all, we don’t know all the species that went extinct, or are going extinct at the moment, because we don’t really have worldwide surveys of even the largest mammals you can think of. So we don’t know as much as [what is actually] happening. But at the same token, what we do know is really startling, and so I think that you can only imagine if it can be catastrophic to lose one species in an ecosystem. If you take the big experiment in Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming in the US where the big mammals, the wolves and the bears, got taken out, and it just wreaked havoc. In terms of the habitat change, the other species that had been prey animals to those species actually did worse without the predators, because the predators help keep their numbers in check. And those animals, when they thrived, they kept their habitat in check. So it could be sort of a cascading effect of even just losing one species.
MA: One of the things that you had noted in that article is how it affects us too because we rely on the ecosystem for so many aspects of humanity, whether it’s food or water or medicine.
SH: Oh exactly. The other thing is, just think of climate change and the fact that we are so close to losing polar bears. I think that these species that are going extinct are an indication of the status of our world right now, and that in itself is a message. I’m having a hard time trying to quantify what it means to lose a species, because you can always argue, “Oh, you lost a spider, who cares?” But in the long run, it is a big part of an ecosystem, that really we often don’t even know the complete consequences of what happens when we lose them.
MA: Michael Archer, what would you add to this?
Michael Archer: Where do we start? We’re in the middle of a terrible disaster. I mean we have had five mass extinctions on the planet already and many smaller ones, but as Susan said, this current one that is unfolding, which is now sort of described as the sixth mass extinction of the world, is just happening so fast that the resilience of life to be able to respond and recover from this has been ripped away from it. Besides we have, of course, particulated the world up into little squares, surrounding everything with agriculture. The resilience of the world is [not going] to even be able to respond in the way that it did previously to mass extinction, so we do have a problem, and I think, for many of us, we are saying, “It’s time to take the gloves off. We have got to stop being so concerned about preservation and trying to keep the world the way it is because that is just not going to happen anymore”.
And that means all of these new technologies have got to be on the table, and we’ve got to be fairly aggressively determined to be willing to consider every strategy that could optimise, or at least reduce the losses of global biodiversity. We don’t know what we’re losing, or what critical factors here are going to disappear that are going to be very important for our own survival into the future. So I think de-extinction is one of the powerful new tools that not only helps us optimise biodiversity, but it also provides us with new technologies that could help us slow down the loss of species that are occurring in the world right now. It’s not just about bringing extinct things back. It’s also about learning technologies that will help us conserve endangered species today.
Douglas McCauley: I think some really great thoughts are in circulation here, painting a picture for what is happening around us, by Michael and Susan. I think just this idea that we are accelerating towards a sixth mass extinction really helps us understand the magnitude of this event. We have past historical mass extinctions to put things in perspective, or events like when a ten-kilometre asteroid hit the planet with the force of hundreds of thousands of nuclear bombs. That is the event that drove the dinosaurs extinct. This is what we are talking about now happening in real time on our planet, that we are now the new asteroid and we’re altering our planet in so many different ways as we’ve mentioned that are pushing species right to the brink of extinction, and pushing many of them over that edge directly to extinction.
I think your question was spot on as well, about why does this matter? Well, certainly it matters to lose camaraderie that is biodiversity that has been on our planet for millions of years. These are really special parts of planet Earth. These are lineages that are old, that are beautiful, that are special, that are complex. But it’s not just about losing these amazing species from the ecosystem, it’s about losing what they do for us. And sometimes we don’t know what it is, but in many cases we do. They provide us with nutritious dinners. They provide us with clean water. They’re there in the case, for example, of the coral reef, protecting our coastlines and coastal homes from storm damage. It is both a selfless and a selfish exercise to begin to get our heads around what the beginnings of this sixth mass extinction mean to our planet and importantly, what they mean to us.
MA: So let’us discuss what has developed in the field. What is happening in the field of de-extinction? What has shifted over the last few years?
MA: It’s very interesting actually. I think as we see global interest in the potential benefits of going down this path, there has been a massive increase in consideration of what species should we be thinking about possibly bringing back from the brink of extinction. And I think there are about six projects at the moment that are active. There is certainly the Woolly Mammoth project. There is the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, the cougar, there is oryx. We’re working on the gastric brooding frog, and then there is a lot of other related projects, a lot of these being managed by Revive and Restore. It’s an amazing organisation that is helping support a lot of this happening, much of it also, I would add, involving funding that has nothing to do with funding that would otherwise be looking after endangered living species.
In almost all cases, it is new money coming from people interested in the technology and the possibilities it could bring. These projects are not moving ahead at the expense of conventional conservation of other endangered species and, in fact, you know, I would reiterate [that] I think a lot of the technology that is coming out of these existing projects is going to be extremely important in helping us to better look after things that are endangered today. It’s a synergistic thing. In many ways, it’s a bit like playing a game of golf. You’re setting out to do more effective conservation, and you have one club in your bag [so] you’re just not going to play a particularly good game. And I think de-extinction, translocations, genetic modification, a whole range of strategies are now available that can better enable us to look after the things we don’t want to lose any more of. But these current projects, I think hopefully, will be the incentive to consider others as well. So while only six projects are moving forward fairly aggressively at this point, I like to think that with the success of one of these—remember we haven’t actually succeeded yet. There are a lot of efforts going on here. So a lot of the excitement about whether we should or shouldn’t be trying these sorts of things is a tiny bit premature. Let us see if we could do one of these first, and then if it is successful, then we start saying, “Well, how should we refocus this effort and really try to get back key species that are going to make a big difference to the condition of the world?”
MA: I remember reading about scientists bringing back a particular kind of goat, back in, I think, 2003, but it died off again. Is this something that we’re going to be dealing with?
MA: That was a complex situation. I was so excited about that project, and I think most of us were because it was technically the first time an extinct animal managed to get born. It didn’t survive, but then [neither] do many goats that are born. They have the same sorts of problems, so it’s not clear it had anything to do with the de-extincting process. But that particular project didn’t move ahead, not because of the cloning involved, or the use of ancient DNA wasn’t successful. It stopped because there wasn’t coordination with the local Spanish government to keep that environmental place. The Bucardo, that was the name of this kind of goat, was going to be put back into the environment to restore that bit of biodiversity and that ecosystem stability. So the Spanish government instead allowed a different goat to be introduced to the same area making it kind of pointless to try to get the extinct animal back because its habitat had been taken away. So there are all sorts of issues here that have to be considered, not just about the biology and the technology of the process, but about what are you going to do when you get the animal back? Have we got all the other aspects of these projects worked out?
MA: Were there others like this?
MA: That was the most advanced one. In terms of doing classic cloning involving trans-species, shifting of the nucleus from one cell of one species into the cell of another, the same kind of project is the one that we’re working on now with the gastric brooding frog. You’ll often hear people say, ‘Well okay, the woolly mammoth, if we get it back, it won’t be exactly a woolly mammoth because it will be a blend of Asiatic elephant genes as well as the recovered woolly mammoth gene’. So it will be kind of a mixed animal, but it may be functionally serving the role of the mammoth and helping suppress the release of greenhouse gases in Siberia, so it’s still extremely important. In the case of the gastric brooding frog, we are doing something very similar to the Bucardo project because we’re taking whole nuclei that were frozen forty years ago. So we’re not playing with the genetics of the animal at all. We’re moving the whole of its genome into the egg cell of a different species. So what we would expect to get out of the embryos that we’re already getting and now trying to encourage to continue to develop should be an entirely intact gastric brooding frog. It’s not going to be a hybrid animal. So there is a blend of different kinds of de-extinction projects going on, some of which will have the whole genome back, some of which will have a mixed genome.
MA: So how do we choose which animals or other species that we do want to bring back? Douglas McAuley, I know you and Susan Haig have both looked at this.
DM: Let me lay my cards on the table. I admire the science that Michael and Susan have underway. I’m a little bit more conservative about where I think we can and should be making the biggest impact with this science. I think as a conservation biologist, everyone here, we all agree that we’re up against something serious with the acceleration of extinction rates, with us looking down the barrel at a forthcoming sixth mass extinction. You put it well, Michael. We want to have our golf bag, if you will, filled with as many clubs as we can. And we’re scientists, so we don’t want to be Luddites. We want to be looking for the best technologies, but I think we need to be thinking very strategically about where the de-extinction will work and where it won’t work. Which brings us back to your question. I think one of the things that if we are going forward with de-extinction is thinking carefully about bringing back functions.
So I think Michael touched on a few things that it’s one part of the process to actually bring a species back from the dead, but probably the more important part of the process for the point of view of an ecologist, a scientist, a conservation biologist is making that species stick, making sure it goes back to the same abundances, the same jobs, the same functions that it once served. So that starts with a selection process. You want to choose a species for which there is a space still in the ecosystem to bring back. When I choose a species that has a function that has gone totally missing, if there are a lot of species out there that are still alive, and are essentially replicating the function of that extinct species, maybe that is not a good choice.
Another important decision, maybe the last criteria I’ll throw in the mix, is in order to maybe get closer to some of these aims about trying to reintroduce a species successfully, we can win some of those battles and actually overcome some of the technological challenges with the extinction by choosing younger extinctions. Michael, for example, is working with a gastric brooding frog, which absolutely fits the bill of what I was talking about in terms of complexity and want, just such an amazing animal and such a loss for our planet. It’s also a relatively young extinction. The challenges for doing at least the brand of and the breed of the extinction science that you’re doing are much more intractable. Of course a major scientific undertaking, but much more intractable when we’re talking about younger extinctions. And then also when you are trying to bring a species like a gastric brooding frog or something that just went extinct back into an ecosystem, your likelihood of being successful is going be much greater if there is still that space open for it. If the frog, the pigeon, the mammoth needed something like a forest and a particular forest is gone, well, you know, then it’s perhaps not so wise to bring that species back from the dead, and the probability of something key going missing in the ecosystem where you want to recover the species increases as the date of extinction gets longer, as the extinction is older.
SH: There are so many points to think about that you have brought up. I think one thing that came to mind is this young extinction idea is obviously really important, and actually, maybe one example that is turning out to be great is Olly Ryder at the San Diego Zoo [who] long ago had the foresight to save sperm from black-footed ferrets. And now, black-footed ferrets have gone through yet another bottleneck, and they’ve got issues with distemper, and they have inbreeding depression, and yet now, Olly has this sperm from the past that he can use for artificial insemination, so the ferrets that are on the brink now but are hanging on, the female is being inseminated with genetic material that is far healthier than what they would be inseminated with had they just been mating with the other ferrets. So that is not necessarily a high-tech example, but it shows that having some foresight and using some technology before species go extinct really helps. Another point I wanted to bring up though is when we think about de-extinction and the benefits, I don’t think we have to jump from, “Oh, we lost the woolly mammoth” to “Oh, we need the woolly mammoth back.” I think it’s kind of like the space programme in the 60’s, where there are so many ancillary benefits to conservation that are coming from scientists focusing their efforts to the de-extinction process that it is truly remarkable.
There are a number of species that are benefiting tremendously as a result of genetic engineering. They’re not species that are going extinct. They’re species that are making other species go extinct. For example, now through genetic engineering we are able to produce [a] reassembled herpes virus in Asian elephants, so that now a vaccine can be developed, and it’s doing miracles to save Asian elephants. And, as many people know, introduced rodents have been the bane of trying to conserve many islands. But now invasive rodents can be eradicated by just translocating a gene from one rodent into the test team. And what happens is as it passes on, you are only creating male offspring so that ultimately you end up with all male offspring on an island, and they go extinct. They’re editing resistance genes for Lyme disease so that that could be got rid of, and maybe the one that is really dear to my heart is avian malaria, it’s terrible but it’s the most pronounced in the Hawaiian islands where all these bird species have gone extinct. They’re now able to release mosquitoes that have dominant lethal genes, which basically is causing their extinction. I have viewed the progress in incremental stages. I guess it’s the bottom line. I don’t think we have to wait for a woolly mammoth before we can see tremendous benefits from this technology being progressed and developed.
MA: Suppose we bring a species back, but their habitat is no longer sustainable for them and they can’t survive in that habitat, perhaps from climate change. What do we do about these situations, Michael Archer?
MA: I have to say of all the projects that I’m aware of that people are actually focused on with de-extinction and as well as working on the endangered species, the habitats actually still are there. In the case of the gastric brooding frog for us, the rainforest is still there and so on, and of course there is Pleistocene Park [that] has been created in Siberia with all kinds of fascinating reasons why it should be possible to get mammoths back on to Siberia doing all sorts of good things. But I think we maybe need to lighten up a bit about this as well. I’m not a great fan of thinking that if you can’t maintain a species in its original habitat, that it’s functionally extinct anyway. I don’t buy this in some ways because I think even if you hit a situation like that, for example another project that I have been working on in the past was the thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger project. I’d been in the habitats in Tasmania where the animal lived, and they are certainly still capable of getting thylacines back. I wouldn’t stop at that, I wouldn’t say that that is the ultimate criteria for whether or not you bring an animal back, because I also know that Tasmanian tigers were being kept as pets by people in the 1800’s. It was illegal because they had declared them to be pests and were trying to destroy them all, but in fact if it had been allowed to occur, they would still be in the world today.
And I think that the plethora of strategies for looking after important distinctive parts of the global genome are things we should consider, not just releasing them into the wild, but also taking other steps to ensure that the genome survives, and in some cases frankly that might even be in zoos. It might be in breeding facilities because we just don’t know how important those genomes are. And I wouldn’t even stop with the idea that we should only think about putting them back into their original habitat.
I’m a palaeontologist. In some cases, I’m discovering that where living animals that are endangered today are struggling to survive, there are adjacent habitats that you would never have thought about, but the fossil record tells you they used to live in those areas. I’m inclined to think we should be exploring the possibility of translocating animals into habitats where they don’t occur today but where we have some indication they’re likely to be able to survive and maybe increase the global functional biodiversity of those ecosystems. In New Zealand, for example, the takahē is in an alpine area, and it was struggling to survive. It was down to only a handful of individuals before somebody in New Zealand said, “Hey, weren’t there bones of this bird, this unique bird in the lowlands of New Zealand? What if we try to translocate some of these alpine individuals down into the lowlands?” And everybody said it would never work. There are different foods etc. etc. But they tried it anyway, and it worked wonderfully. The takahē loved lowland grass, and they started building up numbers and became fat little happy birds, and now they are putting more of those birds back into the alpine zone.
So I think we really need to take the lid off the whole range of things we might speculate about here, because there are many ways to get good outcomes that aren’t necessarily about preserving the existing situation we see on the Earth today.
MA: I know there are ethical issues related to de-extinction, and Michael, I know that you argue that it is ethical because we have done an unethical thing by driving these species to extinction. What are the counter-arguments?
DM: With all due respect to your opinions, Michael, which I think are quite sound, I have a very difficult time lightening up on the issue of extinction. As we laid out, we’re looking at perhaps the biggest catastrophe for biodiversity in our planet that is affecting what is history’s richness, the beauty and complexity of life around us. And if we’re seeing us sort of accelerate toward the sixth mass extinction, there’s nothing really to me that I see in that biological future that leaves me with a sense of levity. What I see is an ambitious task, but the ambitious task for us is not in the lab, trying to create oddities or a point of curiosity that will populate zoos.
What I see is the most ambitious task that scientists and conservation biologists are facing today, which is to try and stem this flow of extinction. And so I think there could be a role for de-extinction and thinking strategically about how to intervene in this global biodiversity catastrophe, because as we have said, it matters for the planet around us, and it matters for us. But I think we need to be very careful about what we’re doing with this talent, with the tools we have in our labs because so much more needs to be done, and so much more should be done than simply creating more exciting zoos, more exciting pets.
In terms of the morality associated with this, I think we’re getting into new space here, and of course we are getting to this space in all elements of science at least in how we’re pushing the envelope for genetics and genetic research, you know, we’re talking essentially about nothing less than playing God.
You know what we’re looking at here is a set of tools that are truly and literally helping us to bring back a species in their entirety from the dead, or to make kind of zombies mixed up portions of different kinds of dead species, that is a new power that we never had before. Of course, we’re still using these exact same kinds of tools in other contexts to help cure diseases in human health. We are getting into some interesting space here in what conservation biologists can do and should do. And it gets worse as we get more of these powers laid out in front of us, on our lab benches, [and we should] be careful about how we apply them.
MA: Can I just sneak in a little comment there? You know, just to be a tiny bit mischievous, because you should never trust professors quoting the Bible, but when we talk about, you know, “This is humans playing God,” it actually bothers me a bit that we need to remember what it says in I Corinthian 15:26, that the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. I mean it’s kind of like God’s message to humans. Well, we messed up the Garden of Eden. Now it’s our job to get rid of death because that is the enemy of life. And I don’t see that de-extinction couldn’t be seen in this light. It’s actually an effort to try to find a way to reverse the things that we’ve messed up. I do agree with a lot of the things that Douglas has said. It’s just that I think that, while the first effort should be to try to keep things as healthy as we can in the world today, the reality is the world is changing. It has been changing for the last three and a half billion years, and it will continue to change. We are a change-factor, and we’re making a real mess of things. And in the base of all of this change, I just think that we have to take a deep breath and say things can’t be kept the way they were because the world is changing, and we’re changing it.
We have to look for a whole range of potential alternative strategies to keep as much of the things that are important in life and in particular the capacity of life to evolve new life forms into the future. So we need to preserve the capacity for change. We have to try to avoid getting trapped in the idea that our main goal there is preservation of the existing situation, because that is getting increasingly impossible.
MA: I think the argument that Doug was making is that there is a very big toolbox and that this is one of the tools in it. But I think the other piece that is in the background of what Doug had said is, what if these things go horribly wrong? Susan, what do you say to this ethical argument? Could things go horribly badly?
SH: There is always a chance they can genetically engineer the genome that takes out something. Someone could do something terrible. But more practically, several things [to consider]: I think for one, it is going to be a long period of time before we can actually produce populations of individuals of a species. I guess I’m not so worried about that. I would say that amazingly enough, the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that produces the world’s red list, which is the world’s endangered species list, they have already come up with criteria for de-extinction. They’ve taken this very seriously, and already they’ve said, “Okay, we think that these criteria must be met”, and they actually have a red list of species to de-extinct, which I found fairly shocking.
But looking at this list, there must be thirty species on this list that they have deemed appropriate, according to their action. So I think that in some ways, it is comforting that a world-renowned organisation is paying attention to this. On the other hand, I just don’t see it being a problem that quickly. What I do think is an interesting issue—I don’t know if it’s problematic or not—but I know, for instance, there are labs in the US that are receiving huge amounts of money for bringing back, for example, Falcons.
And I guess the question is: If you have enough money, do you have the right to bring something back or not? Because it’s not that this thing is going to live in your basement. It’s that if you’re really going to do it, you’re going to be releasing it out into the wild. And to me, I don’t see that as the immediate question, but I think that is an ethical issue that is going to be before us before there is ever a problem with those species coming back from the wild, and, you know, taking over the earth.
DM: We really are breaking new ground here in an exciting way, and so I think there are going to be a lot of uncertainties about what happens. To be honest, my concern is less about cranking something out of the lab, a mammoth, or a passenger pigeon, or a frog or whatever it is that it hits the ground and explodes in number and takes off in a way that it takes over our planet. I’m actually much more concerned about the opposite, that we build something in the lab, a new species, and we have a really hard time, almost impossible time, getting these things back in the ecosystems. And to me, that will be really concerning.
We talked about some of the barriers to bringing species back, and I think there are a couple of cases now that leave me with a little bit of concern about the capacity of how things go in the other direction where we end up having manufactured a handful of these new species, and they have no home.
The passenger pigeon is an example of a species that there is quite a lot of effort and intellect and money being invested here in the US and elsewhere trying to bring this once extinct species back to life. Now the passenger pigeon, you know, may have a very malleable ecology, a very plastic and changeable ecology. As Michael pointed out, some birds do, but it was heavily dependent, and its favourite food was American chestnuts. That’s the kind of forest that as a result of the chestnut mite has gone almost entirely extinct in the United States.
So we’re looking at a major challenge trying to figure out what is the new home of this new species, so to be honest, the thing that concerns me most is about not having too much success but having too little success and connecting to that is cost. I think when we’re looking at trying to be as strategic as we can, we have this huge problem that we’re dealing with, which is this coming mass extinction. We have species that have crossed the line and are extinct, and unfortunately we have many hundreds, thousands that are lining up right there on the edge of this extinction cliff. We have to make some pretty strategic decisions about where we are going to put our efforts, where we are going to put our money.
So in terms of the currency of money, there has been some recent work that has shown that actually projections for how we’re going to bring these species that we make using de-extinction back into the wild is going to be extremely costly, in fact much more costly if you add up the dollars to save species than it would be if we try to use more traditional tools in our conservation toolkits. The process, for example, of trying to bring a species all the way back to fruition out into the wild doing its thing again as it once did, we would spend more money and in fact save less species than if we invested some of these strategic methods, for example, habitat or ecosystem conservation. I think we just need to confront these challenges.
MA: I have to rise to Douglas’s challenge. I have read the paper too. A lot of us who are involved in de-extinction saw that challenge in saying that, in fact, we do more harm than good by bringing an extinct animal back. But that paper actually, I hate to say it, was very shallow in its overall take on the implications of bringing extinct species back. It didn’t consider the possibility that bringing strategically selected species back could in fact provide greater protection for a wider range of species by getting it back into the world. Bringing the thylacine back is an example. You are bringing back a key species, the dominant carnivore in Tasmania; you stop tropic cascades from taking out other species that might otherwise start to happen.
So I think that paper, it was almost like it set out to be kind of negative, and it’s fair enough to have all kinds of arguments out there about the pluses and minuses of a new technology. But it wasn’t a balanced paper, and a lot of us wondered whether there shouldn’t be a response to point out that if you really look at all the issues involved and the benefits you could get from de-extinction, including new technologies that will help save endangered species. I think you’d find that the equation for whether it’s a good or a bad thing would be at least evened out, if not on the positive side, by definitely using de-extinction.
I would add also about the passenger pigeon, you are quite right, Douglas, about the issue of the habitat that the passenger pigeon was particularly comforted by, but fascinatingly, one of the other de-extinction projects really about focusing on endangered species is one focused on the American chestnut. There is a whole group that has been working on getting the American chestnut back on its feet and resistant to the chestnut mite, and they’re making massive strides. And the intention, of course, is to get American chestnuts back where they were and restoring the balance of forests. There have been new papers coming out saying this is likely to be a successful effort; it will restore the biodiversity of the plant species in those forests, and hey, it just might provide that extra habitat for the passenger pigeon if and when that can be brought back.
DM: I appreciate your points, and I think we can certainly agree in as much that making projections for the cost of bringing new and exciting technology online, there are a lot of uncertainties, and there is going to be a lot of challenges in those numbers. I think it is fair to say that we know it’s going to be expensive. We need to think about the expenses on the front end. We can’t forget that it’s going to be quite expensive to get them back if our ambition, as many of ours is, is not about trying to do grander things with de-extinction than creating new paths. I think to the point of cost, to the point of strategic impact, we can potentially go back, and I would be very hopeful, be really excited to see a blight-resistant chestnut come back, but I think it’s fair to say again that we consider thousands of species still alive, still around us, not yet extinct.
It is not cheap to try to just simply bring a species like a gastric brooding frog back to life; it is not cheap to do conservation for an endangered species. I think it’s fair to say that when you have two of them jumping around in front of you in a forest that the opportunities, the costs are lower than if you have to reach way back in to a fragmented genome to try to put pieces back together to manufacture something. You actually have a lot more opportunity for investment and impact if you’re starting with a species that are around you to begin with.
MA: Ironically, I’m not sure that is true, because in fact the cost of working on our gastric brooding frog, getting the DNA back, getting the embryos back again has been less than the cost of employing one technician for one year.
MA: Can you give us some numbers related to these costs? I read one number that the cost of trying to bring back a bird was something like $360,000 for a year.
MA: Well, in the case of the gastric brooding frog, I raised actually a hundred thousand from two people who were not supporting conservation projects. They are interested in the technology. As I say, it’s completely new money that would never, never otherwise be available for conventional conservation, and I haven’t used a fraction of that money to get us to the point where we’re at now. So I think, done carefully, these projects need not be very expensive, but Douglas is quite right to say, you’ve got to factor in the costs of looking after the species after you put it back in the environment. What are the ongoing costs to ensure the successful re-introductions? So it is fair to look at the totality of the costs involved in the projects.
But along the way, you’ve got these other benefits that are coming out of this kind of research that are, in a sense, free, because the costs involved in doing the de-extincting are meeting those costs, but producing technological tools that are going to be useful tools to do other kinds of work involved in conventional conservation. So it is a complex issue.
SH: A final comment with this ethics discussion is, I think, the points that both Michael and Douglas are making are really important, but I think the one honestly that scares me the most is the point that politicians will take the idea of de-extinction and use it to not fund conservation efforts in the field, and just kind of wave their hands and say well, you know, the species can go extinct. We will save it later when there really is no later, and that is the thing that puts fear in my heart.
MA: So much of what we get to do with science depends upon our representatives in government.
SH: Exactly, and that is my point. That is why it is in my mind a very scary aspect of the de-extinction argument. That doesn’t mean I don’t support it because I do, it’s just a fear I have.
MA: A lot of the key issues that are sort of boiling topics for discussion within and beyond the de-extinction research groups have been touched on today, and I think that is very healthy. And I think as Susan said, one of the important messages to all of us here is to make sure politicians who just may not have the biological or ecological backgrounds to understand the implications of research of this kind and how it can benefit net conservation and biodiversity controls, to make sure they do understand that. And that means presenting publicly all the time, not sitting back in the laboratories and shutting the doors and hoping nobody is listening to what we’re trying to do. We need to talk about it because the benefits of this are things politicians must understand, if there are not going to be obstacles on the way to beneficial outcomes.
DM: I really appreciate the thoughts of the colleagues here in circulation, and I think what we share is common ground that absolutely something has to be done. That this problem has only been accelerating, the extinction problem is getting worse and worse every day, and so we need to have thoughtful scientists and conservation biology bringing old tools and new tools together, increasing the strength of which we put these to work.
But I would say we want to do it intelligently. What is exciting to me is that I think Michael will be successful, and Susan’s colleagues and Susan will be successful doing de-extinctions, and that is exciting, but that is also something that I think we want to take a moment of pause and say just because we can bring extinct species back, do we want to do it? And if we can, where do you want to do it with the greatest impact? Because really, to me, as somebody that looks out at the world and sees this rich matrix or tapestry of life to which there are threads that come and go, connecting us to it and seeing that begin to unfold, what I want to do is put that back together as best and as quickly and with the most integrity as possible, and we need to be very thoughtful about how we bring de-extinction into this brand new toolkit for conservation biology to do this. I think it’s really important.
I want to amplify Susan’s last point: that a very important thing about embracing de-extinction is ensuring that it doesn’t take any of the edge off the severity and the consequence of driving a species extinct. You know we’re talking here about uncertain futures being able to bring an extinct animal, a mammoth, a frog, put it back to life in an ecological life in an ecosystem. We are facing high costs trying to bring these species back to life, and there certainly will be some species where we fail to de-extinct, so if anything, for me it raises my awareness that extinction is significant, that it’s serious, that it’s probably the greatest travesty and damage the human could do to our planet. It’s not something that we should be taking lightly, and so this technology, if anything, should help us realise just how serious a problem extinction is and how much more effort, how much more thought, and how much more resources we need to put on the table to deal with this issue.
SH: I wanted to take it just one step further and say if we were to stop research on de-extinction right now, which I do not support, but if we did, as an ecologist, and as a conservation biologist, I cannot get over the fact that we might have avian malaria gone from the Hawaiian Islands. That is so beyond anything I thought could happen, or totally getting rid of rodents on islands. I mean these are monumental advances in conservation that five years ago we couldn’t have imagined and they’re here. And so already, the progress that has been made in science because people are addressing this issue has just catapulted us decades ahead of where we thought we might be in some of these efforts. It just points to how important it is that scientists be allowed to do science and take their results where they go, and keep exploring. The exploratory mind is so important, and I hope that we always continue to have that sort of freedom to explore and to go where our research takes us.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.