By Helen Taylor 08/03/2017

Efforts to resurrect extinct species could divert funding away from conserving extant species, but a more basic issue with “de-extinction” is the misinformation surrounding the topic.

A recent study by New Zealand and Australian researchers puts a price on “de-extinction”. The team also estimate how many native extant species might be lost by directing these funds away from existing conservation efforts. (Read more about this on the Sciblogs News blog). The take home message is that “de-extinction” could come at the cost of preserving native species. An excellent point, but this is only one problem with the quest to revive long-dead lineages.

“De-extinction” is not actually a thing

Using the word "De-extinction" gives a misleading impression of what's actually possible
“De-extinction”: an overused and highly misleading term

The very word “de-extinction” encapsulates perhaps the biggest misconception around talk about bringing back moa and mammoths. The word conjures up Jurassic Park-like images of using ancient DNA to literally bring these species back to life. As explained by US scientist, Beth Shapiro in her excellent book and accompanying lecture, How to Clone a Mammoth, this is not actually possible. We cannot make a mammoth, we can only make a mammoth-like elephant; i.e., an elephant with mammoth-like characteristics such as more hair and tolerance to colder temperatures than its tropical relatives.

It’s easy to understand why the term “de-extinction” has become a catch-all for the various attempts to make modern replicas of species that are no longer with us. It’s sexy and exciting. Really though, the best term is that selected by the IUCN in its recent “de-extinction” for conservation guidelines: a proxy. This is further defined as “a substitute that would represent in some sense (e.g. phenotypically, behaviourally, ecologically) another entity – the extinct form”. Nowhere near as catchy as “de-extinction”, but far more realistic.

“De-extinction” excitement overload

We can never bring back a mammoth
Obligatory mammoth picture (Image credit: Flying Puffin via Creative Commons)

The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to unrealistic expectations around “de-extinction”. Just last month, the world press went wild with claims that US scientist George Church was going to resurrect the mammoth in the next two years. The problem is Professor Church didn’t actually say anything of the sort.

What he did say, in a  New Scientist interview, is that within two years, he hopes to produce an elephant embryo containing a small number of mammoth genes. He is also candid about having no intention of using a live elephant as a surrogate to carry his embryo. This means he’s relying on someone inventing an artificial womb which, he acknowledges, may never happen. George Church may be ambitious, but he’s no fool. Sadly, his realistic outlook is lost in the media hyperbole.

NGOs enter the discussion

The media aren’t the only culprits here. NGOs like The Genetic Rescue Foundation (GRF), (the organisation behind the kakapo genome sequencing crowd-funding effort) are also big proponents of “de-extinction”. This particular group currently has four species on its list of proposed de-extinction projects: the moa (it’s unclear which species), the New Zealand quail, the Tasmanian tiger, and the gastric brooding frog. It’s tough to say from the website how heavily involved GRF is with gastric brooding frogs (which is a “de-extinction” effort largely driven by the Lazarus Project, who are not affiliated to GRF), and they don’t seem to have moved past the idea stage for the thylacine either.

Do we need a third species of quail in New Zealand
Bring back quail – not quite as exciting as bring back moa (Image credit: NZ Birds online/Te Papa)

The Genetic Rescue Foundation’s projects for de-extinction of New Zealand species are far more developed. GRF has already raised partial funds for moa genome sequencing. However, Craig Millar’s lab in Auckland has possibly beaten them to the punch on sequencing a moa genome.

The New Zealand quail or koreke has the most detailed “de-extinction” candidate page on the GRF website. There is no mention that birds represent one of the most challenging groups for “de-extinction” because they lay eggs. This currently renders the cloning and surrogate approach to “de-extinction” impossible. Neither do they discuss the fact that there is perhaps no need for an ecological proxy for the New Zealand quail; we have two introduced quail species (California and brown quail) filling that niche quite nicely. GRF’s intentions may be good, but their efforts seem somewhat misdirected.

What’s the danger in harmless hyperbole?

So the media are exaggerating scientific results again – nothing new there. Some ambitious scientists and science enthusiasts are getting a little ahead of themselves – same old story. Unfortunately, all this misinformed excitement diverts attention and potentially (as pointed out at the start) funding away from conserving what we still have. Why bother conserving kiwi and other threatened species if we’re being told we’ll be able to bring them back, right? Hype is just one of the issues surrounding “de-extinction”, but it’s an important one.

It’s certainly encouraging that the IUCN and so many other scientists are engaging with this issue ahead of time. Clearly some of the technologies involved in “de-extinction” attempts will be available for conservation relatively soon (e.g., gene editing). We need to prepare for that. However, it’s also the responsibility of the science and conservation community to talk rationally, realistically and publically about these issues. We need to do so loud enough to drown out the hype, before it becomes harmful.

0 Responses to “De-extinction: more hype than hope”

  • De-extinctionists know about the bird challenge. That’s why they’re making germline chimeras instead. Gene-edited primordial germ cells will be transplanted into a living relative’s embryos, which will hatch, grow up, mate and lay eggs from the “de-extinct” species.

    • Hi Jordan, thanks for reading. I was certainly not suggesting that “de-extinctionists” are unaware of the challenges, or that they’re not innovating to overcome them. I do, however, take issue with the unrealistic terms in which the story around de-extinction is presented; particularly where public money or crowd-funding is involved.

  • I think it keeps people from realizing how hard it is to save species and how letting more and more animals and plants dwindle down to double or even triple digit populations could me losing them forever- also it gets us off the hook for wasteful and polluting treatment of the environment.