Back from oblivion: The discussion around bringing extinct species back to life

Welcome to Ice Age Park. For a handsome ticket price you can watch woolly mammoth herds grazing on the plains, saber tooth tigers stalking them from a distance. You can lounge around with giant sloths after lunch and feast on mastodon steaks for dinner.

This place is still science fiction, but advanced biotechnologies being developed today have made more feasible than ever the possibility of restoring species that disappeared from the planet thousands of years ago.

Kansas University law professor Andrew Torrance was asked to speak recently at a Stanford University conference on “de-extinction,” or reviving extinct species with technology. Torrance holds a doctorate in biology and worked as a lawyer representing biotech firms, credentials that made him the perfect fit for his work at KU, where he teaches classes on biodiversity and biotechnology law.

They also qualified him to talk at Stanford about the legal implications of de-extinction, a topic he had only considered as an extreme hypothetical when talking about conservation with his law students. “I jumped at the opportunity because the idea is so cool,” Torrance said. “It’s about the coolest idea I’ve ever been involved in.”

Patenting a mammoth

Scientists already have cloned a member of an extinct species, a kind of wild goat called the Pyrenean ibex. But there’s a big difference between cloning one animal and re-creating an entire species en masse. Doing so would probably require a combination of biotechnologies that exist today, among them cloning, genetic modification and synthetic DNA.

Whether de-extinction would be used to create elaborate theme parks or to try to plug gaps in ecosystems left behind by an extinct species, the legal issues involved are many, none of them straightforward.

Laws governing genetic modification, invasive species, endangered species, patents and international treaties could all play a role. And many legal questions don’t have clear answers, Torrance said. Is a revived species protected under the Endangered Species Act? What federal agency, if any, would regulate the species in the United States? Could species be patented?

Given both the costs and risks involved, not everybody is on board with the idea of reviving extinct species

“It’s a stupid idea,” said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Krishtalka spent much of his career as a paleontologist, traveling the world to uncover species long extinct. But even as someone who studies extinct organisms, the idea of de-extinction holds no allure for him. “At worst it’s stupid. At best it’s misplaced,” he said.

Who gets on the ark?

For Krishtalka and some conservationists, de-extinction is a hi-tech diversion from protecting the world’s millions of species of living organisms, many of them under threat from disruptions brought by climate change and habitat loss.

And then there is the potential of experiments gone bad –Jurassic Park bad. Think of a herd of woolly mammoths running amok in a city. “Tinkering with evolution is a risky business, usually with enormous environmental consequences,” Krishtalka said.

There are other, less catastrophic but still important ethical and regulatory concerns. Among them: Which species “gets on the ark,” so to speak? “Do we say yes to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but no to the Carolina parakeet? Who makes these decisions and on what criteria?” Krishtalka said.

Torrance is optimistic that caution, discussion and a healthy legal environment could help de-extinction benefit both humans and ecosystems.

Others remain skeptical, Krishtalka among them. “The hell with bringing back a mammoth,” he said. “It’s much more important to concentrate on what’s alive.”