Almost 10 years ago, on July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only just to see it go extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. For tens of thousands of years, the animal thrived in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, eating whatever plants and roots it could, enduring harsh winter after harsh winter. Then the humans came – with their guns. Hunting season after hunting season, their numbers dwindled down, and in 1989, just 12 individuals remained. 10 years from that, a single female was left, and not long afterwards, the bucardos became officially extinct.
Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. From the 57 implantations, only 7 animals became pregnant. Out of those 7 pregnancies, 6 ended in miscarriage; one of them however, was brought to term – but only for 10 minutes. A huge lobe in its lung prevented it from actually breathing; there was nothing anyone could do, and the bucardos became extinct – once more.
The idea of bringing back species through cloning has hovered on the border of reality and science fiction for a few decades now, but are we really at that time when we actually bring them back?
“We are at that moment,” sayd Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department.
The term is definitely lacking, but for the lack of a better one, we’ll keep using it. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists met to discuss which animals should be brought back from extinction. They discussed the why, the how, and perhaps most important, the ethics behind this kind of project.
The thing is, the list of recently-gone extinct animals (because of human activity) is really large (7 animals recently gone extinct), so even if all the scientific methods are available, we have to choose wisely where we have to invest time and resources. Are the species practical choices – do they provide any advantage to the environment? Do they hold an important ecological function, or are they beloved by humans? It’s a pretty tricky area, especially considering how the environment has changed.
In fact, this is a very puzzling issue; even if we say, manage to bring back a species, its environment would be different; the ecological niche it once filled is almost certainly gone by now. Migration patterns have changed, food sources have changed, temperatures have changed, and in a way, even if it is a perfect physical clone, the species will not be the same.