In March of 2013, a group of scientists gathered in Washington, D.C. at the TEDxDeExtinction meeting and proposed the idea of de-extinction. Yes, de-extinction is exactly what it sounds like – bringing extinct species back to life using genetic tools (biotechnology) to recreate (clone) various extinct organisms from their reassembled DNA. The idea is both exciting and interesting; however, given some of the ideas brought forward regarding such an undertaking, perplexity as to why we would bother bringing back extinct species rather than trying to preserve extant ones becomes apparent.
The concept is surely intriguing and would be one of the greatest achievements science has ever accomplished, but the idea brings forth many questions as well – particularly when it comes to ecology. For instance, how would the ‘resurrection’ of extinct species like the dodo or the woolly mammoth alter current ecosystem structure and, if we do have a grasp on how the re-introduction of these species would affect current ecosystems (which, for some, we do), will the changes be acceptable in terms of ecosystem stability and sustainability? In other words, will current ecosystems be able to sustain these organisms, given that these systems are drastically different from when such extinct organisms existed; will the current state of these systems remain stable with the introduction of these new (yet old) species? Furthermore, are we, as humans, willing to accept the associated consequences of bringing back an extinct species that simply appears “cool” or interesting?
Releasing these recreated species into the wild is easily comparable to releasing an invasive species into a novel ecosystem, and the consequences of doing so are often devastating. Of course, some of these species may have the ability to enhance biodiversity and other such metrics of ecosystem health, in which it may be beneficial to reintroduce them; but why not use these de-extinction techniques to enhance current ecosystems supporting extant organisms rather than reviving previously existing ones? Bringing back extinct species could also allow for the exploration into how these species initially became extinct, which could aid in enhancing conservation efforts for current species, whether endangered, threatened, or at risk. In artificial scenarios, these organisms could be utilized to make better predictions regarding how some extant organisms, even our own species, may be influenced by future climatic conditions or other potential extinction events. However, ethical implications then arise – do we establish populations of these organisms or just keep exposing them to conditions inducing extinction to better understand future scenarios/implications (i.e., do we keep them alive or just keep killing them)?
Additionally, to use the recreated organisms for this purpose, artificial ecosystems must be manufactured. Creating artificial ecosystems to bring back these organisms to life makes sense, but the historical ecosystem complexity that existed such a long time ago must be recreated with accuracy. This may not be difficult for some species, but for others it would – all this without mentioning the financial costs associated with such studies and how many species of other organisms that would have to be brought back in order to create these complex systems (many of which we don’t have the DNA for). Other questions also arise with keeping such complex populations/systems in concealment. For example, reproduction and mortality rates of revived species would have to be taken into account to sustain a confined population. If populations are to be sustained, these organisms will eventually have to be released, in which the slurry of ecological problems mentioned above then arise.
Although a ‘Jurassic Park’ scenario is not yet within our reach (nor is it likely to be), the ecological consequences of introducing genetically manufactured species which do not belong in a given ecosystem may be more detrimental than beneficial. The prospect of de-extinction is indeed interesting and stimulating, but much more thought regarding the ecological consequences of sustaining populations of such organisms must be established, and we must better understand the beneficial or detrimental implications of such an endeavor. Clearly defining the purpose of implementing this type of technology must be well entrenched before woolly mammoths or kakapos are released into the wild along with the current flora and fauna.