Note: For some clear, interesting presentations on the topic of de-extinction, and where some of the information for this post comes from, check out this list of TED talks.
The current conservation crisis
The stark reality of conservation in the modern era epitomises the crisis discipline that so often is used to describe it: species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and despite our best efforts it appears that they will continue to do so. The magnitude and complexity of our impacts on the environment effectively decimates entire ecosystems (and indeed, the entire biosphere). It is thus our responsibility as ‘custodians of the planet’ (although if I had a choice, I would have sacked us as CEOs of this whole business) to attempt to prevent further extinction of our planet’s biodiversity.
If you’re even remotely familiar with this blog, then you would have been exposed to a number of different techniques, practices and outcomes of conservation research and its disparate sub-disciplines (e.g. population genetics, community ecology, etc.). Given the limited resources available to conserve an overwhelming number of endangered species, we attempt to prioritise our efforts towards those most in need, although there is a strong taxonomic bias underpinning them.
At least from a genetic perspective, this sometimes involves trying to understand the nature and potential of adaptation from genetic variation (as a predictor of future adaptability). Or using genetic information to inform captive breeding programs, to allow us to boost population numbers with minimal risk of inbreeding depression. Or perhaps allowing us to describe new, unidentified species which require their own set of targeted management recommendations and political legislation.
Yet another example of the use of genetics in conservation management, and one that we have previously discussed on The G-CAT, is the concept of ‘genetic rescue’. This involves actively adding new genetic material from other populations into our captive breeding programs to supplement the amount of genetic variation available for future (or even current) adaptation. While there traditionally has been some debate about the risk of outbreeding depression, genetic rescue has been shown to be an effective method for prolonging the survival of at-risk populations.
There’s one catch (well, a few really) with genetic rescue: namely, that one must have other populations to ‘outbreed’ with in order add genetic variation to the captive population. But what happens if we’re too late? What if there are no other populations to supplement with, or those other populations are also too genetically depauperate to use for genetic rescue?
Believe it or not, sometimes it’s not too late to save species, even after they have gone extinct. Which brings us from this (lengthy) introduction to this week’s topic: de-extinction. Yes, we’re literally (okay, maybe not) going to raise the dead.
Backbreeding: resurrection by hybridisation
You might wonder how (or even if!) this is possible. And to be frank, it’s extraordinarily difficult. However, it has to a degree been done before, in very specific circumstances. One scenario is based on breeding out a species back into existence: sometimes we refer to this as ‘backbreeding’.
This practice really only applies in a few select scenarios. One requirement for backbreeding to be possible is that hybridisation across species has to have occurred in the past, and generally to a substantial scale. This is important as it allows the genetic variation which defines one of those species to live on within the genome of its sister species even when the original ‘host’ species goes extinct. That might make absolutely zero sense as it stands, so let’s dive into this with a case study.
I’m sure you’ll recognise (at the very least, in name) these handsome fellows below: the Galápagos tortoise. They were a pinnacle in Charles Darwin’s research into the process of evolution by natural selection, and can live for so long that until recently there had been living individuals which would have been able to remember him (assuming, you know, memory loss is not a thing in tortoises. I can’t even remember what I had for dinner two days ago, to be fair). As remarkable as they are, Galápagos tortoises actually comprise 15 different species, which can be primarily determined by the shape of their shells and the islands they inhabit.
One of these species, Chelonoidis elephantopus, also known as the Floreana tortoise after their home island, went extinct over 150 years ago, likely due to hunting and trade. However, before they all died, some individuals were transported to another island (ironically, likely by mariners) and did the dirty with another species of tortoise: C. becki. Because of this, some of the genetic material of the extinct Floreana tortoise introgressed into the genome of the still-living C. becki. In an effort to restore an iconic species, scientists from a number of institutions attempted to do what sounds like science-fiction: breed the extinct tortoise back to life.
By carefully managing and selectively breeding captive individuals , progressive future generations of the captive population can gradually include more and more of the original extinct C. elephantopus genetic sequence within their genomes. While a 100% resurrection might not be fully possible, by the end of the process individuals with progressively higher proportion of the original Floreana tortoise genome will be born. Although maybe not a perfect replica, this ‘revived’ species is much more likely to serve a similar ecological role to the now-extinct species, and thus contribute to ecosystem stability. To this day, this is one of the closest attempts at reviving a long-dead species.
Is full de-extinction possible?
When you saw the title for this post, you were probably expecting some Jurassic Park level ‘dinosaurs walking on Earth again’ information. I know I did when I first heard the term de-extinction. Unfortunately, contemporary de-extinction practices are not that far advanced just yet, although there have been some solid attempts. Experiments conducted using the genomic DNA from the nucleus of a dead animal, and cloning it within the egg of another living member of that species has effectively cloned an animal back from the dead. This method, however, is currently limited to animals that have died recently, as the DNA degrades beyond use over time.
The same methods have been attempted for some extinct animals, which went extinct relatively recently. Experiments involving the Pyrenean ibex (bucardo) were successful in generating an embryo, but not sustaining a living organism. The bucardo died 10 minutes after birth due to a critical lung condition, as an example.
The challenges and ethics of de-extinction
One might expect that as genomic technologies improve, particularly methods facilitated by the genome-editing allowed from CRISPR/Cas-9 development, that we might one day be able to truly resurrect an extinct species. But this leads to very strongly debated topics of ethics and morality of de-extinction. If we can bring a species back from the dead, should we? What are the unexpected impacts of its revival? How will we prevent history from repeating itself, and the species simply going back extinct? In a rapidly changing world, how can we account for the differences in environment between when the species was alive and now?
There is no clear, simple answer to many of these questions. We are only scratching the surface of the possibility of de-extinction, and I expect that this debate will only accelerate with the research. One thing remains eternally true, though: it is still the distinct responsibility of humanity to prevent more extinctions in the future. Handling the growing climate change problem and the collapse of ecosystems remains a top priority for conservation science, and without a solution there will be no stable planet on which to de-extinct species.