Is de-extinction a conservation plan B?

18 July 2014

Interview with

Kate Jones, UCL and the Zoological Society of London

Mammoths went extinct over 4,000 years ago, but what about the countless
Tiger cub at London Zoospecies that we're losing today, due to climate change, habitat loss and hunting? Could DeExtinction be an effective "plan B"? Georgia Mills went to London Zoo to find out...

Georgia - With all this talk of bringing mammoths back to life, I wanted to find out how conservationists would react to the potential end of extinction. Zoos are currently one of the key players working to conserve our planet's wildlife, so I headed down to London Zoo to see some of their newest arrivals - 3 Sumatran tiger cubs. With only 300 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, these cubs will have a key role in the fight to save the species from extinction.  Rebecca Blanchard of London Zoo told me more.

Rebecca - These cubs are going to play a huge role in the future of Sumatran tigers. Not only for helping us raise funds from people coming in to see them here at the zoo, but raising awareness for the conservation work that we're doing and the conservation status of these animals and helping us just talk about how important they are. Tigers have been a key focus for us for the past few years. Really developing our conservation projects in Indonesia which is all based around veterinary work and working to reduce habitat loss and the anti-poaching patrol is out there. So, there's a huge variety of work that we're doing.

Georgia - With so few Sumatran tigers left in the wild, conservationists are working hard to keep them from going the same way as their close relative, the Balinese tiger which disappeared in the last century. But with recent claims that animals can be brought back from extinction, what does this mean for our fight to save the planet's current diversity? I met Professor Kate Jones of London Zoo and University College London.

Kate - There's been a lot of hype recently that perhaps extinction isn't as forever as we originally thought it was. There's been a huge development in synthetic biology techniques over the last few years, so using more refined techniques to manipulate genomes, either stitching genomes back together from ancient DNA or implanting DNA into a cell so that you're manipulating the DNA in that cell and creating something else. So, it's kind of making new organisms by manipulating the genomes.

Georgia - So, there are some claims that people can bring back species such as maybe the woolly mammoth or the thylacine. Do you think these claims are realistic?

Kate - I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but those are pretty far off at the moment. If you imagine the woolly mammoth genome, you get some ancient DNA from a woolly mammoth and you get a bit of DNA and you sequence it. Imagine having a library of books and you shred that into tiny, tiny pieces and throw it up in the air. What you're picking is those bits of DNA. So somehow, you've got to recreate a whole library from those bits on the floor. So, that's where we are with the mammoth DNA. So, there are sequencing efforts, but in the end, you'll get a piece of DNA back and then it's a huge deal to go from a piece of DNA into creating a cell to having a mammoth. So, those steps are quite vast and it's going to take a very long time to do that if we can ever do that.

Georgia - I imagine this technique will be very expensive. Do you feel that this would divert funds that are much needed in places like London Zoo to conserve the species we still have

Kate - I think it's easy to jump on the bandwagon and react in a very negative way to de-extinction. So, I think conservation biologists have said this is not worth it, this is a waste of money. But I think the synthetic biology community is here to stay and whether we like it or not, efforts will go into thinking about how to use this for industry and they're going to be doing it anyway. So, I think a more smart approach would be to think about how to best use these techniques to aid conservation instead of a blanket, "this is bad, this is a waste of money," it might be more clever to work with these guys and think about how we can use it best for conservation. So for example, the Sumatran tigers are critically endangered and maybe efforts would be better made to use the synthetic biology techniques to help their conservation breeding programme in a better way of restoring some of the genetic diversity from extinct specimens. Thinking about de-extinction, it is really cool. There is a kind of wow factor in de-extinction.  It would be a shame to lose that. I would travel the world to see a mammoth. So perhaps one way to capture the attention of the media and the public would be to de-extinct some subspecies that is extinct. So, for the tigers, maybe that would be the Balinese subpopulation you could put efforts into helping recreate that. And that would add in to the genetic diversity of the entire species. So, I'm not advocating that, but I'm just saying that's an example of how we could be a bit more smart and less reactive against these ideas which are coming up.

Georgia - So, do you think if they brought back something like the Balinese tiger, would it be more of a gimmick than an actual scientific endeavour?

Kate - You have to think very carefully about what you're doing the de-extinction for. Is it to re-release the thing back into its natural environment, which means you've got to have a natural environment to release it back into. The Yangtze River dolphin is thought to have gone extinct in the last few years. There wouldn't really be any point in bringing that back even if you could because there's nowhere to put it. So, are you just bringing it back to have a little zoo specimen that people could come to? I'm sure it would increase revenue, but is that really conservation? But perhaps if you did that but with an associated conservation re-introduction programme or putting that money generated from that increased interest might help other species which are critically endangered. So, like a coupling of maybe the wow-factor with some pragmatic help for some of the species conservation programmes might be the way forward. The other really interesting thing is using synthetic biology to help conservation in other ways. So, there's been a massive decline in bats in North America for this white nose fungus disease. Perhaps if we could think about manipulating the genomes so that they're resistant to these species would be really cool or manipulating a tree so that it scrubs more pollution out of our atmosphere from where I work in Central London would be awesome.

Georgia - A lot of people listening will think, bringing something back once it's dead is playing God. Do you think there's any reason why we shouldn't do it just because they've gone, they've had their chance, we should just let things lie.

Kate - I think these are really interesting questions which I don't have the answers to. You could also argue on the opposite side that we made them extinct in the first place. If they went extinct naturally, then fair enough. The Balinese tigers subpopulation went instinct because we hunted it to extinction. That's the same with the thylacine, that's why it went extinct. What kind of legacy have we left and what kind of responsibility do we have? I think those are very interesting ethical questions.

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