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De-Extinction: Can Cloning Bring Extinct Species Back to Life?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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passenger pigeon

A museum specimen of an extinct passenger pigeon

At some point in the next decade, if advances in biotechnology continue on their current path, clones of extinct species such as the passenger pigeon, Tasmanian tiger and wooly mammoth could once again live among us. But cloning lost species—or “de-extinction” as some scientists call it—presents us with myriad ethical, legal and regulatory questions that must be answered, such as which (if any) species should be brought back and whether or not such creatures could be allowed to return to the wild. Such questions are set to be addressed March 15 at TEDx DeExtinction, a day-long event in Washington, D.C., organized by Stewart Brand’s Revive & Restore project. Brand previewed the topics for discussion last week at the TED2013 conference in Long Beach, Calif.

Scientists are actively working on methods and procedures for bringing extinct species back to life, says Ryan Phelan, executive director of Revive & Restore and co-organizer of the TEDx event. “The technology is moving fast. What Stewart and I are trying to do with this meeting is for the first time to allow the public to start thinking about this. We’re going to hear from people who take it quite seriously. De-extinction is going to happen, and the questions are how does it get applied, when does it get used, what are the criteria which are going to be set?”

Cloning extinct species has been tried before—with moderate success. An extinct Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) was born to a surrogate mother goat in 2009, nine years after the last member of its species was killed by a falling tree. The cloned animal lived for just seven minutes. Revive & Restore itself has launched a project to try to resurrect the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914.

Revive & Restore has already held two private workshops for geneticists and others involved in cloning and conservation to share information on current de-extinction projects, techniques and ethics. The upcoming TEDx gathering will be the first public event to widely discuss the same topics. Like all projects organized by Brand’s Long Now Foundation, transparency is a central issue for Revive & Restore (after all, Brand is the man who famously said, “information wants to be free”). “For our organization, the idea of being able to provide this information or the exposure of these ideas, it’s just a way of starting the dialogue,” Phelan says.

Although next week’s meeting will mostly focus on resurrecting lost species, Phelan says the same cloning technologies also have a lot of potential to help species that are currently endangered. “I think we’re going to be able to apply these technologies to species on the brink,” she says. “To me, that’s why I’m most excited about this. How are these technologies going to be used to help improve genetic bottlenecks and things like that?”

Of course, conservation budgets around the world are already strained, and most endangered species do not have any direct conservation funding devoted to them. Wouldn’t focusing on cloning technology take away from those scarce conservation funds? “My knee-jerk reaction to that is simply that it should not be either-or, but that it should be an ‘and’ question,” Phelan says. “I don’t think there’s a certain amount of dollars that can only be spent for helping animals on the brink. I think that these things are additive, and that the challenge is ensuring that conservationists and others that are involved in wildlife are aware of these technologies and can move in directions where they can apply them.”

Speakers at TEDx DeExtinction will include George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School; Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School; and Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation and Research. Tickets are available for the live event, which will also be Webcast for free.

What do you think? Should scientists try to clone and resurrect extinct species? Is it worth the cost or the effort? Do you want to see wooly mammoths walk on Earth again or watch flocks of passenger pigeons black out the sky? Are you encouraged by these technologies’ potential to keep critically endangered species such as the northern white rhino from going extinct? Please let us know in the comments.

Photo: An extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) by Gary Palmer via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. streepie 10:04 am 03/6/2013

    Working in the field of global change research, I am asking myself if we are not again committing the very same species to extinction after we “de-extinct” them.
    Ok, passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction – but what about those species who went extinct because the habitat they lived in was destroyed?
    Rather focus on slowing global change, and help those species committed to extinction survive, than to resurrect something that very likely does not have a chance of survival the second time around.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:38 am 03/6/2013

    Absolutely, streepie, that’s one of the major questions about all of this. Can or should you bring a species back from extinction if the factors that drove it into extinction in the first place still exist? Thanks for your comment!

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  3. 3. skyline 1:38 pm 03/6/2013

    Personally I think that the more we try to push these scientific boundaries, the better it is. The more we try to do things like this, the more we will understand about the subject, biology in this case. I think that any boundary pushed in any science is positive, of course as long as the situations are handled appropriately. Just because we are not 100% certain about what might happen, that should not stop our curiosity or scientific advancement.

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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:23 pm 03/6/2013

    There’s still so much we don’t understand. Knowing more will be the key to saving many species in the future.

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  5. 5. HowardB 5:11 pm 03/6/2013

    In principle I see no moral block to de-extinctifying a species. But what exactly does that mena in practice ? cloning one individual ? ten ?

    I think there should be a case to be made for each proposed de-extinctification. Why ? For public viewing interest ? for an environmental purpose ? For a scientific purpose ? Is there a danger to the environment, local or international ?

    Cloning seems to still be in it’s infancy and I think we need to develop it more before we embark on bringing back individuals who may only live for days. We do have a moral obligation to them to give them a decent life, in my view. I also feel that if we intend to do this in any kind of widespread effort, that we should look at how many individuals need to be created to ensure an adequate gene pool.

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  6. 6. Happy Hal 6:09 pm 03/6/2013

    Toronto Zoo, is sending away Africa Elephants. to a warmer climate, and so we’ll be deprived of pachyderms. A smaller ‘wooly’ elephant, would most probably be a better replacement.
    Passenger Pigeons filled a space in the food chain, which seems inadequately filled, and would presumably draw coyotes, etcetera away from cities.
    I don’t live in Tasmania, but it seems overrun with rabbits, as is Australia

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  7. 7. Owl905 6:18 pm 03/6/2013

    Sure, let’s make it two out of three. They won’t be the real deal; they’ll be the ghosts, the curiosities, the freaks. Hello Dolly. The kids can read about it in “Martha was not my mother”. But once we get really good at it … we can reach for false immortality by cloning ourselves.

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  8. 8. Grímr 12:43 am 03/7/2013

    streepie, I agree with your point, but I don’t believe that bringing extinct species back to existence and restoring lost habitats are mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that theoretically you could even use de-extinction as an incentive to further rebuilding (or at least slow down the destruction) of certain ecosystems. Surely, it would catch the eye that a former extinct species walks the lands again rather than a species taken for granted since time immemorial approaching extinction, if not naturally, at least for the sake of scientific marvel.

    An important question here is whether it’s possible to calculate the impact of reintroducing a species into an environment. I imagine the sooner it was extinct, the less effect it would have.

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  9. 9. jgrosay 5:58 pm 03/8/2013

    May the problem be in the mtDNA? I was told by an expert in human mitochondrial diseases, that 50% of mt genome is in the mitochondria, while the rest has been transferred along with the process of evolution to the cell Nucleus. If an species related with the extinct species, and with the same proportion, and the same genes, in the mitochondria and in the cell nucleus is not found, the task may become close to impossible. Or not?

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  10. 10. Tayo Bethel 1:35 pm 03/11/2013

    Reintroducing an extinct species to an ecosystem is likely to have positive results overall … the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is a prime example. As for passenger pigeons … good for the ecosystem, probably not so good for air traffic. They might even take up residency in the larger cities. … Just speculation.

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  11. 11. BobWalton 2:00 pm 03/11/2013

    I’m sure that cloning is technically difficult, but maybe it’s easier with, say, amphibians, lizards, and birds, before you attempt mammals. Is it possible to apply a structured approach, and develop proficiency with the former, then carry it up the genera chain?

    Also, cloning lizards might strain the budget less than a Mammoth or an Aurochs would!

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  12. 12. bucketofsquid 5:44 pm 03/13/2013

    I’d pay a few bucks to see a wooly rhino or a small Mammoth. One thing I’d take up arms to prevent is de-extincting the Smilodon.

    Passenger pigeons and dodo birds would be a great food source for the low income.

    I do have to say though that instead of bringing back dead species I would prefer creating new ones. Take the gliding lizard that gets only a few inches long and adjust them to be several feet long. Instant dragons!

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  13. 13. top_quarck 5:21 pm 03/18/2013

    I am for the de-extincion of iconic recently extinct species
    To see a mammoth again would be almost priceless.
    perhaps they could even thrive is arctic environments.
    Hope the technology will reach the level needed to make the dream reality.
    However, I think that restraint should be considered with possibly sentient species like Hobbits (homo florensis, neanderthals and homo erectus), bringing them back to life in our hostile society would be no favour.

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  14. 14. richard jacobs 4:42 am 03/19/2013

    Even if cloning can be perfected to a point such that species already extinct and those facing that fate can be “exhumed ” or revitalized what about the problems that this would create and/or exacerbate such as habitat,nutrition,water all of which are in short supply for existant wildlife species?

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  15. 15. hschwind 2:38 pm 03/19/2013

    95% of all species on earth are extinct. Why bring them (or some) back? For what purpose?

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