De-extinction Technology: Have We Assessed the Risks? - Part I

Parnika Sharma is a final year B.A. LL.B student at Jindal Global Law School. She has developed a keen explorative interest in the areas of ADR, Environment Law, Human Rights Law, and Family Law.
- Mon October 18


With the advancement in biotechnology, the unbelievable stories from science fiction are becoming a reality. Recently, a new startup called Colossal announced its mission to revive the extinct species of woolly mammoths using genetic engineering and reproductive technology. 

Many other programs are exploring similar projects involving the selective breeding of species like zebras and cattle to revive quagga and auroch, respectively. While some support these initiatives and demand more scientific interventions to save many other such endangeredextinct species, others are apprehensive of such resurrections due to multiple reasons ranging from animal welfare to environmental concerns. 

Part I of this paper lays down a background for the use of de-extinction technology, and environmental ethics. Part II analyses the same from the lens of social welfare, law, justice and governance.

Understanding the technology

De-extinction is emerging as an upcoming field for bio-scientists, conservationists, and even data scientists as this technology relies on huge amounts of biological data due to the requirement of parsing-comparing data on genomes. This process of de-extinction is usually performed using either of the 3 methods i.e., selective breeding (the process of breeding a related living species for specific characteristics of extinct species), cloning (the process of implanting well-preserved remains of an extinct cell’s nucleus to surrogate species) and genetic engineering (the process of inserting DNA fragments to relates species’ DNA for genome sequencing and creating an approximately similar species).

By comparing the genome extracted from mammoth specimens with elephant genomes, Colossal’s researchers intend to identify mammoth-specific genes. Using these, they will then edit the elephant’s DNA in the skin cells by adding to it those genes which entail traits unique to mammoths like those of dense hair, thick fat etc., by means of CRISPR technology. Using elephant tissue to develop stem cells which in turn is used to create an egg, the nucleus is replaced with the nucleus of skin cells entailing the edited mammoth DNA. 

These processes of embryogenesis would result in the creation of an elephant embryo resembling a mammoth, thereby giving birth to a hybrid species (and not precisely the woolly mammoth species which existed many thousand years ago). They also wish to create an artificial uterus that could carry the embryo for years until it develops into a fetus. Once an artificial uterus is constructed, it would perhaps remove the need of using elephants as surrogate mothers.  

Why is de-extinction technology desired?

Human activity today is causing the destruction of the environment at unbelievable rates without supporting much of its recovery. Between 1970-2016, the wildlife population had reduced by 68%. This is mostly being caused due to human-induced changes in temperature-sea levels, extremities, wars, conflicts etc. While it is widely known that extinction is a natural process whereby species of animals-plants keep disappearing from time to time and get replaced by newer species, mass extinction is a phenomenon that takes place when a particular species is wiped out at a faster rate than replacement time. But once one species becomes extinct at a rate distinguishable from natural extinctions, other species’ existence is threatened due to change in the ecosystem.

According to research, this could be altered by changing the manner of natural resources usage, land management, and prioritizing protection of the environment over financial systems. There are others who additionally think that resurrecting extinct species could solve the issue of biodiversity loss and changing ecosystems. Given the speed of climate change and habitat dilapidation, it is believed that human-made technology could be the most efficient and rapid solution to restore such species. Further, revived species like woolly mammoths could hypothetically reduce the warming of tundra in Siberia-North America as used to drive ecosystem and grasslands preservation by breaking the moss-trees, giving fertilizers to the land in the form of their droppings.

The use of this technology would allow scientists to build a pool of unique scientific knowledge by exploring approximations of extinct species to develop an understanding on their evolution. Once resurrected, those species could be used for providing benefits like medicinal drugs may be provided by revived plant species. Further, this would also lead to advancement and improvement in biotechnologies, for instance, data scientists are using their databases to process data and create better tools for biologists.

Many have stated that ‘justice’ for the extinct species seems to be a compelling rationale for de-extinction. Since their extinction has been due to human intervention, humans are considered responsible for resurrecting them. Another compelling reason for the growing interest in such technology from the investors and publics’ perspective is the element of amazement as many are intrigued and attracted by the thought of seeing an erstwhile extinct species.    

“We can, but should we?” – Arguments opposing this technology

The opposition to such technology has progressed from doubting its viability to questioning its desirability, giving rise to ecologists’ question of “we can- so should we”. It might be more than just a scientific debate as it involves issues pertaining to the environment and ethics. It is being regarded as an unmeritorious idea because it would require the fabrication of a million species to create a population of new hybrid species. 

Further, from an animal welfare perspective, it is argued that not only will there be suffering for the hybrid mammoths being born artificially, the first few little mammoths would have no mother. Since these animals rely on tight-knit groups and cultures, it would be hard for the mammoth-elephant hybrid species to orient themselves to the newer surroundings of the Arctic in the place of the elephant’s original home of Asia. Moreover, assuming that mammoths would again break the moss and revive the grasslands in the Arctic as they did 10,000 years ago is problematic because now the ecosystem there has adapted itself to having the same snow reflect sun radiation, which could be reversed if such a species is introduced there. It is therefore contended that because the planet, ecosystem and climate would have changed multifold since the extinction of certain species, their resurrections might destabilize the prevailing ecosystem considerably.      

Opposers vehemently disagree with such a use of biotechnology as it creates an expectation to repair all human-caused damage to biodiversity. In a study on estimation of costs, it was found that the cost of de-extinction projects exceeded conservation costs of endangered species as the former involved the additional costs of developing and using biotechnologies. In the scenario of state-led resurrection, funding would be sourced out of the government budget relating to conservation, thereby reducing the funds available for actual original conservation efforts. This is estimated to cause a net loss of 2 species for every 1 species that is resurrected. In the scenario of privately funded resurrections, whilst it would cause a small net biodiversity gain, a much larger gain can be made by allocating those funds into conserving existing species. Therefore, it is incorrect to couch de-extinction in terms of conservation as eight times more environmental gains are estimated when resources are spent on the living than reviving the dead.

Further, many are opposed to this idea because though it seems like a fascinating scientific project to revive species that haven’t been seen in the recent past, it is considered incorrect to construct this technology as a complete fixer of climate change given the limited timeframe available for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn impacts the ecosystem. Addressing the root cause of climate change ought to be made the collective intention of society rather than investing in massive projects which entail risky consequences. 

For a majority of the extinctions, exploitation and destruction of habitats due to human intervention has been the main reason for the decline of particular species. So, while the revival of certain species may or may not restore and rebalance the ecosystems, it is vital to recognize that human intervention could repeat the cycle of endangering those resurrected species. Further, more than celebrating scientific advancement, we need to pause for a bit and reflect on our agency to tamper with species genes of an existing species. 

Beyond that, it is also imperative to discern that human agency might lead to disparity in de-extinction projects whereby more charismatic endangered species (example lions, pandas etc.) would be preferred over other less-desirable species, regardless of the level of their necessity in preserving ecosystems. Here, the questions of governance, scientific ethics, social welfare, and justice become all together important, and Part II of this paper will make an attempt at exploring the same. 

Views expressed above are solely of the author.