Unnatural Selection: A Brief Overview of De-extinction
“Of all species that have existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct,” (Simberloff
2001). The challenge of maintaining and reviving our planet’s biodiversity is one of the most
daunting yet important undertakings of our time. One of the ways that scientists are trying to
protect species richness is through utilizing de-extinction methods. De-extinction seeks to
reverse past extinctions by bringing versions of the extinct species back to life and reintroducing them to their original habitats, most often through cloning, artificial selection, and genetic engineering (Novak 2018).
Talk of de-extinction in the media and among scientists heightened after a
TEDxDeExtinction conference in 2013 (Jørgensen 2013). Two groups involved with putting the event together were National Geographic and Revive & Restore (Novak 2018). Revive & Restore aims to build “a new conservation toolkit for the 21 st century” by using genetic tools to both revive currently endangered species as well as initiate de-extinction projects for those species that no longer exist in our biosphere (Reviverestore.org). Some of their projects include the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback and the Wooly Mammoth Revival Project (Reviverestore.org).
As mentioned by Beth Shapiro in How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-
Extinction, one of the ways in which scientists are trying to safeguard dwindling populations in the wild is by utilizing genetic engineering (Shapiro 2016). Biotechnology can be used to
manually re-diversify the gene pool of an endangered population, but only after extensive
observation and research have been done on that species (National Human Genome Research Institute). An example of this process is to Revive & Restore’s Black-Footed Ferret Genetic Rescue project (Reviverestore.org).
Part of the challenge of preserving biodiversity is examining the role human activity plays in environmental degradation and species endangerment. One of the major steps in planning a de-extinction project is looking at what caused the species to go extinct in the first place (i.e. determining the chances of the species survival today if it were to be brought back) (Shapiro 2018). In the 2013 paper “Reintroduction and De-extinction,” author Dolly Jørgensen suggests that a species should only be considered for de-extinction candidacy if its initial reason for extinction has been eliminated and if it has a viable habitat available – this is because reintroduction is a natural successor to de-extinction (Jørgensen 2013). Something else to take into consideration could be the impact the reintroduced species would have on organisms currently living in its former habitat. It is by human choice that many species have become endangered or extinct, and it is now by human choice that some of them may be revived.
De-extinction is a complex subject area with even more complicated ethical decision
points. Even if not through de-extinction, actions need to be taken to protect Earth’s biodiversity before more irreversible damage is caused to this (for now) irreplaceable planet. Even small steps can make a profound impact on protecting precious natural resources and native species.
1) Multiple Choice: Which of the following animals are incorporated into current revival and/or de-extinction projects?
A) Black-footed ferret
B) Wooly mammoth
C) Passenger pigeon
D) All of the above
2) Short Answer: If you could pick any extinct plant or animal to bring back to life, which would you choose and why?
“Cloning Fact Sheet.” National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), 21 Mar. 2017,
Shapiro, B. 2016. How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. Princeton
Revive and Restore, 2018, https://reviverestore.org/what-we-do/.
Jørgensen, D. (September 2013). Reintroduction and De-extinction. BioScience, Volume 63,
Simberloff, D. (2001). Roundtable: A Modern Mass Extinction? PBS Evolution.
Novak, B. J. (November 2018). De-Extinction. Genes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6265789/