These remarkable developments in genetic research mean the ridiculous (albeit innovative) proposal of Pleistocene Rewilding could come to fruition in a way they never thought possible when they proposed the idea in 2006. Pleistocene Rewilding was thought up by a group of conservationists lead by Dr. Josh Donlan, direct of Advanced Conservation Strategies at Cornell. They suggested that by bringing Pleistocene equivalent species to the historical home ranges of their counterparts we can increase biodiversity, kickstart evolutionary interactions that have gone dormant since the loss of megafauana, and create a multi-continental system for conservation of currently endangered species. Basically, their idea is to bring Africa & Asia to the Great Plains of the United States to increase ecosystem interactions. One of the stages of their plan is the creation of a Pleistocene Park. Their intention was to have proxy species (i.e. Asian Elephants for Woolly Mammoths) act as ecological stand-ins for extinct species but with these new technological advances, why not have a park with the real thing.
I know what you’re thinking, but, Caitlin, Jurassic Park didn’t turn out so well. True, but there are some major differences between Pleistocene megafauna and Jurassic dinosaurs. Yes, we have ZERO knowledge of either of their actual behavior, but, I have a sneaking suspicion Pleistocene megafauna husbandry wouldn't be too much different than that of Holocene megafauna (that’s right now). There obviously will have to be species specific changes made (which we wouldn't find out about until after they're cloned) but zoos all over the world make alterations to their husbandry protocols and enclosures all the time when they receive a new species or have to make placement changes to their exhibits. Plus, Michael Crichton (may he rest in peace) has already thought up of all the things that could go wrong: don’t use frog DNA to fill gaps, make sure you have strong fencing, be prepared for natural disasters you know occur in the area, have thorough background checks of employees and so one and so forth....
In honor of Jurassic Park opening in 3D today, I thought I would share with everyone the new developments in science which could make this science fiction, science fact. While it will be a LONG time (if ever) until we will be able to clone a T-rex, it is a very real possibility that we will be able to clone more recently extinct animals to create an “insert time period here” park.
Natural decay rates make it impossible to retrieve the whole genome of animals that went extinct tens of millions of years ago but animals that have gone extinct within the past 50,000 years or less could contain enough viable DNA to piece together a fully sequenced genome. The ability to bring back extinct animals is so within reach there was a TEDx conference held in Washington D.C. on March 15th of this year where they discussed the ethics of “De-Extinction.”
After the successful, yet very short lived, cloning of an extinct Ibex in 2003, scientists have been improving and perfecting the process. Now, cloning the megafauna which went extinct during the last ice age is no longer just conjecture. After finding well-preserved mammoths in the Siberian tundra, scientists at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul teamed up with mammoth experts from a university in Siberia to find mammoth tissue buried in the cliffs of the Permafrost. From the bone marrow, hair, skin and fat they found, the scientists are looking for a live cell they can reprogram to grow into an embryo cell then clone. If they can’t find a live, viable cell, their next plan of action is going to be to transfer a mammoth nucleus into an emptied elephant egg cell. But, even if they found a viable cell today, we are still a number of years away from a mammoth being born. After implantation into an elephant surrogate, it would still be 2+ years before any offspring would grace us with its presence (elephant gestation is 645 days).
But, even though the ten year old inside of me thinks this is the COOLEST idea ever, however amazing it would be to see a real, live mammoth, saber-toothed cat or Jefferson’s sloth, what’s the real purpose other than pure entertainment value? There was a reason these species went extinct 10,000 years ago and, while humans may have been a factor and some people may feel “responsible”, we have to remember, it’s been 10,000 years. The ecosystem has had a chance to adapt, change and evolve. Adding those megafauna back into the mix could end up causing more problems than solving. The list of objections and potential conflicts far outweighs the perceived benefits, and this is without adding de-extinction into the equation. But, just because I don’t think a mammoth should be brought back to life, doesn’t mean this research is for not. While I believe it is more important for us as intellectual beings to focus our efforts on pre-extinction than de-extinction, I CAN see the benefits of being able to bring back a species which has recently been wiped off the earth because of human thoughtlessness. Would this research make it possible to see a western black rhino, which was declared extinct only a year and a half ago, on the plains of Africa again? It will be interesting to see where this research takes us in the next decade whether its to a Pleistocene Park or a new population of rhinos in Africa.
I am a biologist and my life is crap!