REVIVING EXTINCT SPECIES

Species extinction, and related ecosystem loss, are amongst the most serious environmental problems of our time. Scientists estimate that species are presently going extinct at one thousand to ten thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction. There may however be some hopeful news on the horizon for reviving extinct species with recent advances in stem cell research.

Precise numbers are still unavailable, however data suggests that between 0.01 and 0.1% of species go extinct each year. Over the next 25 years, four to eight percent of existing closed tropical forest species are estimated to become extinct. Although there is significant variation in these estimates, even the low extinction estimates are alarming.

Currently, when a species goes extinct, it is lost forever. However, this bleak prognosis for the Earth’s biodiversity may be about to change thanks to developments in stem cell research. The still experimental process of bringing extinct species back to life through somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning, is becoming referred to as ‘de-extinction’.

In July 2003, a team of reproductive physiologists in Spain successfully created a clone of the last bucardo, a Pyranese wild goat, which had died in 2000, effectively bringing the species back from extinction. However, their success was limited as the baby bucardo lived for only a few minutes before dying due to abnormal lung development.

Despite the only partial success of the first de-extinction case, the bucardo clone’s creation from the genes of its mother who had died three years before and her full gestation, was considered a significant scientific leap. Although further advances in stem cell research will be required, a group of leading scientists are of the consensus that a successful de-extinction procedure is within reach.

Still, among scientists, there is some controversy over the ethics of de-extinction and criticism that the de-extinction program distracts from addressing the main source of the problem: habitat destruction and inadequate conservation measures. However, de-extinction enthusiast argue that in addition to reviving extinct species, the technology can also be used in the fight to bring endangered species away from extinction and should be used in conjunction with other existing measures to protect critical habitats and species. Furthermore, as stem cell research will continue to progress for human regenerative medicine, there is a strong case for persisting with the de-extinction program to strengthen the fight against species extinction in the future.

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