The bucardo, a mountain goat perfectly adapted for life in the extreme cold and snow of winter in the Pyrenees, became extinct in 2000. From the last living specimen, a goat called Celia, researchers managed to harvest living cells and store them in liquid nitrogen. Using these cells, Spanish researchers now plan to de-extinct the species by cloning it.
This is not the first effort of its kind to de-extinct the bucardo. In 2003, Spanish researchers inject nuclei from Celia’s preserved cells into goat eggs that had been emptied of their own DNA. These eggs were implanted into 57 surrogate goat mothers of a related species, seven of which became pregnant. Only one calf was brought to term, which unfortunately died shortly after birth due to lung complications. Still, the project marked the first de-extinction success, despite the cloned calf’s death.
Now, the Aragon Hunting Federation signed an agreement with the Centre for Research and Food Technology of Aragon (CITA) in Zaragoza to revive these efforts. For now, the team led by Dr. Alberto Fernandez-Arias will focus on studying whether or not the 14 year-old frozen cells from Celia are still alive and suitable for in vitro implants.
“In this process, one or more live female bucardo clones could be obtained. If that is the case, the feasibility of a bucardo recovery plan will be discussed,” Dr Fernandez-Arias, who is head of the Aragon Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands Service, explained.
Even if the researchers manage to use Celia’s cells, they’ll have their work cut out for. First of all, imagine it’s not like cloning any kind of animal. We’re talking about an extinct species after all and it gets even more complicated considering the only cells the researchers have at their disposal are coming from only one female. One solution could be to cross the resulting cloned animal with closely related sub-species – such as the Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) or the Gredos ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae). But will these animals be bucardos afterward? Well, the scientists hope they can genetically select specific traits later on such that they might come up with an organism as closely matching the original bucardo as possible.
Some other solutions are being discussed as well. For instance, it was shown before that it is possible to reverse the sex of female mouse embryos and breed males. This doesn’t quite solve the problem of genetic diversity. Crossing individuals with more or less the same genetic mark-up breeds vulnerable specimens prone to disease. A technique called Crispr could solve this problem and open up a whole new range of possibilities for both de-extinction and conservation efforts of extremely endangered species.
Crispr allows extremely precise genome editing, meaning scientists could closely select certain genes and create diversity.
“In some cases, you have a hunch as to what diversity is needed. You might specifically want diversity in the major histocompatibility complex [a large gene family involved in immune responses],” said George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University.
“For example, part of the problem with the Tasmanian devil is that they are so closely related in terms of their immune system that they have problems rejecting the facial tumour cells that they spread by biting each other.”
Ultimately, the same technique could be used to edit the genome of an Asian elephant to act as a surrogate for a mammoth – the greatest de-extinction dream so far.