Ethical De-extinction

Mammoth

Buttercup, as she may have appeared 40,000 years ago. (Credit: WolfmanSF)

A South Korean biotech firm pulled blood from a frozen female Siberian wooly mammoth. Found on an arctic island in the East Siberian Sea, the creature is the best preserved mammoth ever discovered. When she was dug out of the thawing permafrost in May 2013, blood oozed from her body. Palaeobiologists performed an autopsy. They concluded that she was a 50-year-old who had mothered at least 5 calves. (They deduced that from growth rings in her tusk.) Buttercup the Mammoth, named after the flowers discovered fermenting in her stomach, apparently died when she became stuck in a peat bog and then was killed and partially eaten by predators. This could be one reason she was found with only three legs.

The mammoth had been frozen a long time. When she was discovered, the first scientists on the scene wondered how fresh the preserved body was, so one of the gentlemen took a bite of the mammoth meat, following up on the work other carnivores had begun just 40,000 years earlier. You might question the safety of eating a 40,000 year old steak, but locals had long fed similar finds to their hunting dogs. And, as they say,”if it’s good enough for a hunting dog, it’s good enough for a scientist.”

Eating mammoth meat.

Scientist eating mammoth meat.  (Credit)

From an experimental perspective, I guess it’s OK to have a bite. As Tori Herridge of London’s Natural History Museum explained, “it was just a wee nibble” and allowed the scientist to determine how well preserved Buttercup might be.  “I’m a paleontologist, I work on fossils normally . . . so to have the opportunity to get up close and very, very interactive with flesh that was quite bloody and sort of gory…” her voice trailed off. I don’t know if Dr Herridge tasted the meat herself, but she did have the chance to pet the dead mammoth’s hairy trunk. You can see more by watching this Russell Howard interview with Dr Herridge:

With all the blood and fleshy bits, it should be possible for the South Korean firm Sooam Biotech Research Foundation to clone Buttercup the Mammoth. Sooam Biotech has plenty of experience – they have cloned over 400 pet dogs. They will resurrect your favourite pooch for $100,000. For that price they also add a proof of purchase token – the cloned animal will be built with glow-in-the-dark toenails. Not only will you have a copy of your pet but it is less likely to get hit by a truck next time it crosses the street in the dark.

Sooam Biotech may be the perfect company for cloning a Buttercup. They have the experience. Apparently they also have the thick skin it may take to ward off ethical criticism arising from the venture. The firm’s founder is the daring and talented Woo-suk Hwang. The former veterinarian cloned the world’s first dog, Snuppy, in 2005. But you may also remember Hwang as being publicly disgraced for falsifying human embryo cloning research at Seoul National University, which expelled him. Even after the scandal, Hwang’s supporters raised nearly 4 million dollars and started Sooam Biotech in order to pursue commercial cloning. Hwang works there today, in a low-profile role. Woo-suk Hwang is apparently not directly involved in the company’s high-profile Buttercup project.

The question remains: should the cloning of a mammoth proceed? I doubt anyone will stop the project, so it’s likely a mote query. Nevertheless, there are ethical questions. At first these will involve the welfare of the elephants forced to act as surrogate mothers while the future mammoth is grown in the breeder’s womb. I suspect a few Indian elephants will unintentionally die in this pursuit. Then there are the offspring. Scientists believe that mammoths were gregarious band members. New creatures may be pretty lonely, unless the procedure is safe and inexpensive enough to allow a herd of clones. All of whom, presumably, will be female, if the only cloning stock is Buttercup.

Dodo, painted by F W Frohawk, 1905

Dodo, painted by FW Frohawk, 1905

Aside from the ethical questions regarding these science experi- ments on sentient elephants and mammoths, how does the successful cloning of a giant extinct mammal affect our perspective on the glaring reality of everyday extinction – much of it due to our own actions and manipulation of the environment? Shall we feel less guilty about the demise of the dodo bird, passenger pigeon, and polar bear? Knowing we can resurrect creatures we have killed, will we allow ourselves to become callous? (That is, even more callous than we already are?)

Whether or not we can make spare clones, we will continue to butcher our fellow creatures at an accelerating rate. We will lose the Earth’s genome diversity, one species at a time. Cloning – ugly as it is for the animals involved – is perhaps a debt we owe to those creatures succumbing to our bad habits. We are living in a new age – the Anthropocene, or Age of Man – and it is named for human-inflicted extinctions. Geologists define epochs on the basis of extinctions in the fossil record. Presently, more species are becoming extinct today (several dozen species disappear each day) than died off at any other time in the past 60 million years. We won’t reverse the Anthropocene, but like a desperate ex-lover, we may pull a few scorched letters from the fire we started. These letters may be simply C,G,A, and T, but they might remind us of the way things once were.

Besides the suffering endured by the resurrected animals and their surrogate mothers, a second ethical question arises with respect to the clone’s impact on the environment. In the case of the mammoth, that should be negligible as the environment of 10,000 years ago (when the last mammoth became extinct) is not much different today than it was in the day of Buttercup and her calves. Nearly identical flora, fauna, and even temperatures can be found among some of the world’s preserves. In this sense, at least, the mammoth will feel at home.

Woolemia nobilis, photo by

Woolemia nobilis  (photo by CT Johansson)

In a way, the ethics of de-extinction has already been answered. We have already resurrected an extinct species – and we have spread it around the world. Wollemia nobilis is a magnificent tree that flourished 80 million years ago, then slowly abandoned the fossil record everywhere in the world. Paleobotanists lost all trace of it in rocks younger than 2 million years, thus believing Wollemia nobilis became extinct 2 million years ago. But in 1994, a few living specimens were discovered in three small isolated ravines 150 kilometres northwest of Sydney, Australia. Since 2006, copies of the dramatic coniferous tree have been transplanted around the world. Botanical gardens are fond of Wollemia. It can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and soils – a grove of the Australian tree has been planted as far north as Scotland. If the Wollemia Pine had become extinct and was revived, would that be considered more ethically dubious than spreading this living fossil from its tiny reserve of isolated trees? If nature had run her course, a funeral for the last of the Wollemias would have been held later this century, a private ceremony attended by frogs and wallabies in that distant gorge. Instead, we can study this lone species, the sole representative of its genus. It is in many ways a unique tree.

Considered a Lazarus taxon, all known specimens of the Wollemia Pine are genetically identical, indicating the near extinction of the tree. It grows to 40 metres, has a fascinating brown knobbly bark, and resembles a monkey puzzle tree. Despite its common name, it is not really a pine – it has flat leaves rather than needles. But it is coniferous. Male and female cones occur on the same plant, and when the cones mature, the branch holding the cones dies. New branches grow from dormant nubs on the trunk and, in turn, produce more cones. We don’t yet know what we may learn from this fossil tree and its unique biology. And so it will be when we encounter a herd of resurrected mammoths grazing on arctic tundra a few decades from now.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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2 Responses to Ethical De-extinction

  1. seawards says:

    Just a comment on your article. Why did you choose to use the polar bear in regards to your ethical concerns along with the dodo or passenger pigeon when the polar bear is not even considered an endangered species? To compare an animal with 30,000 of an estimated population to that of one that already reduced to a population of zero seems odd?

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    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Scott, thanks for your comment. You are right. Polar bears are not listed as endangered, and their world-wide population is a whopping 20-25,000 according to Environment Canada and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Unrestricted hunting had the population down to 10,000 in the 1950s. Today, aboriginal groups are allowed to harvest 300 adult polar bears each year. Black rhinos would have been a better example. – Ron

      Like

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