Comment »Posted on Wednesday 4 February 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but Spanish scientists have succeed in bringing an extinct species back to life – if only for seven minutes.

A Spanish ibex.
A Spanish ibex.

The Pyrenean ibex is a subspecies of the Spanish ibex (shown above), a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex, also known as a bucardo, was declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known survivor died in northern Spain.

Forward thinking scientists preserved DNA from the animal in the form of skin samples frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now, scientists at he Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid have used this DNA to cloned the extinct bucardo – the first time an extinct species has been resurrected.

Unfortunately, the ibex kid died seven minutes after birth due to lung defects – an affliction seen in other cloned animals, such as sheep.

Dr Jose Folch lead the research team, who used a cloning technique known as nuclear transfer, in which DNA is removed from the egg of a host species and replaced with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

“The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance.” said Dr Folch.

The team created 439 embryos, implanting 57 into domestic goats which served as surrogate mothers. Of these only seven resulted in pregnancy, with just one goat giving birth to the short-lived bucardo.

I’m always torn over attempts to resurrect extinct animals. On the one hand, it’s an undeniable fact that human beings play an active part in reducing biodiversity by wiping entire species off the planet. As I quoted David Attenborough yesterday, Darwin showed us that we do not have dominion over the animal kingdom, and unnecessary destruction of wildlife should not occur. Perhaps resurrection allows us to atone for our sins.

Darwin can also be used to argue for the other side. A common statistic thrown about is that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Despite extensive Googling I have been unable to verify a source for this number, but let’s assume it is correct. After all, the principle of natural selection tells us that the weakest will not survive, and whether it be through predatory, environmental or simply disaster factors, species do not survive.

Some say that human evolution has already begun to stagnate, as our improvements in diet and healthcare even out the evolutionary footing. By restoring extinct species, are we not also at risk of bringing back animals that have, in a sense, failed?

One anthropocentric argument for encouraging biodiversity is that by eliminating species, we could be robbing ourselves of future benefits that they could provide – new types of drugs as a result of some unknown plant, for example. It strikes me that this argument could be turned on its head – that by allowing failed species to return (a sort of evolutionary bail-out package) we could deny future generations the opportunity to make use of emerging species.

It’s a complicated issue, and I’m still not sure on which side I fall. I’m once again reminded of Jurassic Park, with this quote from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm:

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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