This past November, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the western black rhinoceros of Africa, last seen in 2006, officially extinct. It also concluded that most other rhino species are in danger, even “teetering.” Yet at the same time, over the past year, some scientists and others have been declaring that the woolly rhino – last seen, oh, 10,000 years or so ago – could soon NOT be extinct. Along with a small but growing host of recently expired species, it might undergo “de-extinction”: we could sequence and then synthesize its genome, and then use the genome to synthesize the animals themselves. The work requires a combination of genetic and reproductive technologies. One route would be to extract DNA from a reasonably well-preserved specimen of the ancient animal (several have been found in Siberian ice and one in a Polish tar pit), reconstruct the overall genome, insert the genome into an enucleated egg taken from a living rhino species, stimulate the egg so that it becomes an embryo, and bring the embryo to term in a living rhino. Some first forays have already been taken at the early steps in this process.
Is this good news for a conservationist? Seen one way, de-extinction is an answer to extinction – not the only, and surely not the best, but an interesting and exciting fallback option. Seen another way, it is a distraction from the core issues threatening species, which mostly have to do with overhunting and habitat destruction. Seen yet another way, both de-extinction and human-caused extinction are part of the same phenomenon – of the wave of human activity that is remaking the world in almost every conceivable way.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.