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Cloning to reverse extinction: is it realistic or a false hope?

When I studied Biological Sciences in college, I picked the topic of cloning as an environmental prosthetic as my senior thesis.  In other words, I wrote a thesis about cloning an extinct animal to restore the ecological role of the animal in the greater environment.

Many people see cloning as a huge boon to environmentalism, especially conservation biology. Imagine being able to find the remains of Martha, the last passenger pigeon to die in captivity and make a living breathing copy.  There are the study skins of Carolina Parakeets waiting in museums for a bold scientist to breathe life into them.  But perhaps it would be like Frankenstein’s monster or Jurassic Park; perhaps the dead should remain dead and cloning the extinct is just hubris.  Perhaps geneticists shouldn’t play god.  

It’s an ethical problem with many sides.  Initially, the gut reaction of many well intentioned people is that cloning could right wrongs otherwise beyond our grasp to fix.  It is more complicated than just winding the clock back to clone an extinct plant or animal.

Imagine those passenger pigeons, imagine them as Audubon saw them, flying by the millions.  Passenger pigeons once blotted out the sky with feathered wings and dominated landscapes.  Imagine if we cloned ten passenger pigeons; would ten be enough pigeons to truly live as passenger pigeons?  Could we give room to a million or even ten thousand passenger pigeons?  We don’t even know everything a passenger pigeon learns from her parents.  Murres are birds that can’t live without their fathers.  A male Murre teaches his offspring to swim and hunt fish, without this exchange a Murre cannot live in the wild.

Now imagine a woolly mammoth; imagine snow falling, lighting on thick fur and piling up.  Imagine a trunk puffing steam into a cold arctic morning.  Where now would mammoths live?  There is a team in Japan currently working on cloning mammoths; in fact they claim they will clone a mammoth.  Will the mammoth be allowed to be wild?  Should a mammoth be allowed to be wild?  Will a mammoth cloned for our curiosity be anything more than a sideshow exhibit, an animal knowing nothing but bondage?  There are parks in central Asia that said they would welcome a mammoth but we know nothing of the impact this might have on plants and animals living there now.  The world has moved on since the time of the mammoth, we don’t know if grasses or animal densities have changed.  Could introducing a mammoth push another animal or plant into extinction?

What of the Thylacine?  The Tasmanian Tiger has scientists actively working to clone it.  Wouldn’t it be good to clone once the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial?  Humans absolutely pushed Thylacine over the edge into extinction.  Maybe we could undo a huge mistake.  Perhaps a cloned Thylacine would prove competition for the already embattled Tasmanian Devil.  Maybe the Thylacine would be a relic of the past kept in a zoo for tourists to gawk at.  Perhaps the genetic code of the clone Thylacine would be subtly different (it would be) and will mix with a hidden pocket of Thylacines hiding somewhere in Tasmania.  Maybe paradoxically, the clone could mean the end to the last of the Thylacines through hybridization.  

We have or will soon have the power to reduce extinction in some cases.  Considering the millions of dollars and decades of dedicated labor, it seems unlikely cloning will be entirely benevolent.  How many would be willing to risk millions of dollars invested by releasing an animal into the wild?  How many would be willing to pass up the opportunity to use an extinction clone as a tourism draw?  

In the end, do we really deserve to bring an animal back from the dead for our own amusement; to soothe our aching conscience?  Perhaps we would be better served trying our best to connect with the millions of other life forms around us right now and save as many as we can now.                 

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer     

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