Archive for Saturday, September 7, 2013

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

September 7, 2013


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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.”


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 9 months ago

1) Is it possible to bring back the Dodo Bird, Elephant Bird, or Giant Moa? (Pedantic question!)

It seems to me that it would be much more important to attempt to revive species that have gone extinct more recently. This article, except for one paragraph towards the end, seems to be talking about only species that have gone extinct 10,000 years or so ago. But, I think it would be more important to attempt to bring back species from no more than 1,000 years ago. Or even in the last 100 years!

I am sorry that I don't have a source for this, it is something that I read years ago. The claim was made that about 30% of the native plant species in Kansas have gone extinct since the European invasion. Of course most of them were very small plants that wouldn't seem to have much importance, but where do you draw the line? Anyone that has read or glanced through 'The Oregon Trail', by Francis Parkman, knows that the ecosystems in just about all of the United States have changed so much as to be unrecognizable in the last couple hundred years.

I was very disappointed about 15 years ago when I went to one of my father's pastures to gather some pincushion cactuses to transplant to my yard. (That may not be the official name, but that's what we called them.) I was very disappointed to find not a single one where there used to be hundreds. What had happened was that the tenants had overcrowded the pasture, the cattle stepped on them, and killed them all. They're a succulent, they reproduce from seed very slowly, and then only once every several to many years. They never reproduce by putting out runners. I spent a large part of my life in Cheyenne county, and for a few years I was out dirt biking through the pastures, and I only saw them in bloom one time. And those were ones I had dug up, they were not in the wild. But from that, I learned that they only bloom in very dry years, and of course, they only produce seeds when they bloom. But, as a side note, the blooms are spectacular. It will be decades or centuries before they are replaced, if they ever are.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 9 months ago

2) And the box tortoise, at least it is on the endangered species list. When I was young, in the 1960s and early 1970s, I drove a rather small tractor that didn't go that fast, maybe 8 to 10 mph. And the plow was no more than maybe just a bit more than 15 feet wide. Very often, like just about every day, I would have to stop to let a tortoise pass by, so I wouldn't crush it. Then, in the 1990s, I was driving a tractor that went much faster, 15 to 20 mph, and pulling a plow that was perhaps 30 to 35 feet wide. And - in three or so years, I only had to stop for a tortoise one time! And - the tortoises that you do very rarely see today do not appear to be of breeding size. So they may already be functionally extinct in Cheyenne county.

For another example, the ground squirrel. In the 1970s, it used to be that you would see dozens of them along the highway if you took a 30 mile drive, and I even caught a young one that got pretty close to being tame in one of our fields. They are very charming little creatures. But, I haven't seen any ground squirrels at all in many years now.

Prairie dogs reproduce like wildfire, so much so that they're a problem, so don't worry about them!

All that happened in only about two to three decades. So, my claim is that in the northwest corner of Kansas, it is obvious that extinctions are taking place at a very rapid rate. I am sure it is the same in other locations.

So, in summation, I think it is much more important to attempt to preserve what we have now, instead of worrying about species that went extinct over 10,000 years ago that we have no use for today, except for curiosity's sake. Leonard Krishtalka is right.

Ken Lassman 4 years, 9 months ago

I just saw some mammalaria or pincushion cacti in Gove County, which is south of you a ways, so they are still in Western Kansas. What you are talking about is a local decline in the numbers of a species, which can lead to local extinction, or extirpation. And yes, this is of legitimate concern and real attention should be given to providing local/regional habitat restoration projects that provide refuge to local native plant and animal species that decline with habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, herbicide use, roads, and other human activities that have led to their decline.

We have county lakes in practically every county in the state; why not manage the land around them for this purpose? To an extent, this is already happening--Douglas County Lake, for instance, is being managed somewhat by burning the undergrowth in the woodlands to control the cedar population and maintain the woodland forbs and the open nature of the cross timbers habitat. I don't know if Wildlife and Parks has this as a explicit directive, but it sure would be nice if it guided management of these areas.

To a small extent, the CRP program also encourages such land management practices, as do a few other programs, but I think it would be great if this were brought more to the forefront in these days of shrinking budgets and farm programs. I, like you (from what I think you are saying) believe that this is money and time well spent: preserving our living heritage into the future.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 9 months ago

I certainly agree with your last statement!

We were heavily involved in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for many years in two different ways. Most farmers in Cheyenne county seemed to consider it to be no more than a way to collect money for a crop that you didn't have to raise or harvest. Quite a few farmers collected more from the subsidy than they were able to gain in profits by growing a crop in most years. An added benefit was that there was never a crop loss in with a CRP grassland, so you never needed to buy crop insurance either. You needed to sign up and commit to stay with the program for 10 years, as I recall. A large part of the payments for some of the land that my father owned were covered by the payments from the CRP program. We had a lot of acreage in it, I really don't know exactly how much, but maybe in the range of 150 to 200 acres.

And there was me, and I had an interesting job for three summers or so. (That was a joke: It really wasn't very interesting.) My job was to mow the CRP grassland every year, in the springtime. There was/is another option, and that is a controlled burn. But the difference between a controlled burn and an uncontrolled burn can be very small, and a large amount of destruction can be done by a fire that gets out of control. And since it's so dry out there, many to most of the farmers preferred to have their CRP land mowed, and my father provided that service at a reasonable price for anyone that did not own a large power mower. What that meant was that he had me do it.

Power mowers pulled by a tractor are the most dangerous farm implement in the United States, measured by the number of deaths and serious injuries. So of course I was always very careful. I will spare everyone the horrific details of two fatal power mower accidents that occurred in Cheyenne county. I don't know if there were more, but the details of those two sicken me even today, 15 to 20 years later. That might sound like a low rate of accidents, but the population of St. Francis, the county seat, is only about 1,500. So, two accidents is considered to be a lot out there.

Leading on to my beef with the CRP program: It was supposed to restore the native grasslands, and to accomplish that, it was a requirement that native Buffalo grass be planted. So, I mowed thousands or tens of thousands of acres of Buffalo grass in the 1990s, and it was very obvious that the former fields that I was mowing were nothing like the native grasslands that were across the fence in some cases.

The native grasslands always had a variety of plants, although of course they were mostly Buffalo grass. But the CRP land had nothing but Buffalo grass, interspersed with a few weeds. So, the grasslands were not really restored, they were only "something like" the native prairie. One thing is for sure - I never saw a cactus in a CRP grassland!

Ken Lassman 4 years, 9 months ago

I don't know if Quail Unlimited had "wildlife packets" available in your area, but around here, introducing forbs (read: native wildflowers) was an option in the CRP acreage, and the NRCS also has their own forb interseeding program available for already established native grass plantings. Seems like the company which provided the seed was Sharp Seed, which is in Western Kansas, so I bet there were some options available, even tho cactus isn't probably in the mix. But cacti do produce seed, and if you're interested in seeing those pincushion cacti again, here's a link you might be interested in:

yourworstnightmare 4 years, 9 months ago

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

Hmmmm. Sounds like someone is stealing Mr. Krishtalka's publicity thunder, and he doesn't like it.

Joe Hyde 4 years, 9 months ago

No offense to anyone else, but I'm with Prof. Krishtalka on this. If the "de-extinction" worked, the GMO version would likely suffer minute flaws in genetic sequencing, flaws that have unintended impacts on the animal's behavior and health.

Even absent those flaws, this massive "genetically pristine" mammal would at some point undergo the urge to breed...which means science must invent and deliver an opposite-sex partner. Not doing so condemns our single-unit creation to a life of loneliness and misery -- not a feature of life for this (we presume) complex social species during the time it inhabited the earth.

Just doesn't seem like a nice thing to do to an extinct animal -- haul it back from the graveyard of time only to make its contemporary existence one of confinement and misery. Elephants deserve better.

Paul R Getto 4 years, 9 months ago

We have already accomplished this feat, and his name is Muscular Sam.

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