by Athena Cai
What if you could wake up tomorrow and spend the day visiting a live mammoth at the zoo? Science has done the impossible again and again; now the reality of bringing back extinct species seems little beyond our reach.
It begins with CRISPR
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that allows biologists to easily modify the genetics of living things. It has been useful in improving agricultural produce and preventing genetic defects, which are articles that affect everyone. CRISPR is what will ultimately make de-extinction a reality.
Here come the mammoths
A Harvard research team present an example of how de-extinction would work. Using CRISPR, the team edited the DNA of Asian elephant cells. These cells are now genetically coded to have traits belonging to mammoths such as cold-tolerance. Asian elephants were chosen because they are the closest living relative to the mammoths; they share a common ancestor and consequently, many biological features.
Presently, the researchers are looking to see if the traits will appear in tissues developed from the modified cells. The end goal for the team will be integrating what are essentially mammoth-like arctic elephants into a wild habitat.
The technique used to produce cells with mammoth genomes can be adapted to bring back any species. This fact has led to controversy; groups ranging from the general public to conservation specialists have voiced their concerns. One such concern is that de-extinction is a waste of funds — funds that could otherwise be helping to prevent the extinction of already existing species.
Of course, overlooking these concerns would be unwise. However, I believe that de-extinction will become more important as human activity and global warming prompts massive species extinctions. In the last few decades, habitat destruction and rising temperatures have put thousands of new names on the endangered species list. De-extinction and genetic modification could temporarily preserve the planet’s dwindling biodiversity.