Species extinctions have recently been in the spotlight in media and scientific reports and it is clear that humans have to accept some of the blame. With drastic labels such as “sixth extinction”, it is understandable that we want to somehow fix the problems we caused. Recent biotechnology has made it possible to use cells from living or recently dead animals in in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to breed new individuals. This could be a way to “bring back” extinct species or increase population sizes for a threatened species. Is this the solution we have been waiting for or a distraction from other conservation issues?
Biotechnology and the Northern white rhino
In a recent science conference, Undergraduate Eleonora Faraggiana raised the question if biotechnology could help save the Northern white Rhino. The species currently only consists of three individuals and will go extinct if we do not apply this technology.
Najin, one of the three remaining Northern white rhinos could be donating eggs for IVF in the future Photograph: Sun Ruibo/Xinhua Press/Corbis (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/27/ol-pejeta-kenya-sudan-worlds-last-male-northern-white-rhinoceros)
Scientists are planning to use eggs from the two remaining female rhinos and sperm from frozen samples to implant a fertilised egg in a Southern white rhino surrogate. This has never been done before in rhinos but attempted and been somewhat successful in the recently extinct Ibex. This in itself is a big feat, but to save the species, we need to go much further. Since there are only two remaining females, future eggs need to be generated from stem cells of frozen samples to increase the genetic diversity. This is both costly and time consuming. Because this is new scientific territory, we need to weigh costs to other conservation projects, such as the Southern white rhino, against the value of new scientific advances. If we claim that our aim is to protect species from extinction, we need to make sure that our judgements are not clouded by protecting charismatic species but instead try to consider factors such as genetic distance and ecosystem services.
Is biotechnology the answer?
Stopping for a second to marvel at the scientific progress, it is tempting to get swept along with the prospect of mammoths and “undoing” past mistakes, especially growing up with a romantic shimmer around anything remotely related to Jurassic park. The reality however is more complicated and Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University is seriously concerned that people will rely on scientists to fix our mistakes rather than trying to prevent new extinctions. I personally share this concern but also think that we should promote an eagerness to progress and learn more about alternative solutions. In a practical sense, this means that biotechnology most likely will not be the solution to save the Northern white rhino, but an attempt could bring us closer to understand how to increase the genetic diversity of other threatened species in the future. Another concern is that we focus on bringing back species without addressing the underlying reason they went extinct in the first place. For rhinos, poaching has increased dramatically with at least 1.312 rhinos killed in 2015 alone. To make sure all our efforts are not in vain, we need to make sure future Northern white rhinos are not being bred for the fertility market, but for a sustainable wild existence.
Are you still curious about biotechnology and what science can do in the future? Have a look at this fascinating talk by Hendrik Poinar about bringing back the holly mammoth!
Image from TEDblog (http://blog.ted.com/10-fascinating-facts-about-woolly-mammoths/