Experts Say They Are on Verge of a Cloning Breakthrough, but What Are the Implications?

March 15, 2019 Updated: March 15, 2019

If bringing back extinct species was the stuff of sci-fi novels and movie sets, then most people would just take it as that—just fiction. Today, scientists have claimed to have successfully “cracked the code” in “resurrecting” extinct species, such as the Siberian woolly mammoth, which begs the question—have ethical ideals been fully considered?

On March 11, scientists from Kindai University in Osaka, Japan, published their findings after they elicited “biological activity” from the cells of a 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth.

“Yuka” the woolly mammoth at an exhibition in Yokohama, Tokyo, on July 9, 2013 (©Getty Images | KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP)

According to the research paper, the scientists injected cell nuclei from the mammoth’s muscle tissue and inserted them into the egg cells of mice; structures then started forming, similar to that before cell division takes place.

The results indicated the potentiality in resurrecting an extinct species.

Researcher and one of the study’s authors, Kei Miyamoto told Nikkei Asian Review that this was a “significant step toward bringing mammoths back from the dead.”

Similarly, in 2015, a group of international researchers mapped out nearly the entire genome of two Siberian woolly mammoths—a mammoth task many would say.

“This discovery means that recreating extinct species is a much more real possibility, one we could in theory realize within decades,” evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar told NewsWise.

Despite these “breakthroughs” in the field of “de-extinction”— also known as resurrection biology, a term scientists use to literally bring back ancient species that have long been extinct—there are certain ethical concerns that need to be considered.

According to John Rafferty, from Advocacy for animals: “Bringing these animals back from extinction essentially contravenes the intent of nature and raises a number of complex philosophical questions.”

Some questions Rafferty raised include: “Do long-extinct species gain anything from being brought back from the dead? Is it cruel to place these animals in ecosystems different from the ones they evolved in? Will some species outcompete and force some modern species into extinction?”

Or, are scientists playing God just to satisfy human curiosity?

Much criticism surrounds the de-extinction idea from misallocation of limited conservation dollars to a “vanity project,” and to concerns of how the once-extinct and now re-engineered species will impact the ecological balance in nature.

In reference to the passenger pigeon, Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist at UC Santa Cruz and author, said that ecosystems are not static and have continued to change since these animals went extinct.

©Getty Images | Rob Stothard

The passenger pigeon is another extinct animal that scientists want to de-extinct.

“I question if it’s something we should do at all, for many ethical and environmental reasons,” Shapiro said.

“If the point is to put it in a zoo, then we should probably stop right now.”

Jacob Sherkow, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences, said that if the passenger pigeon is brought back there’s no reason to believe it will act the same way as it did in 1850. “Many traits are culturally learned. Migration patterns change when not taught from generation to generation.”

Scientists have said that the woolly Mammoth may have played an important role in Arctic ecosystems, helping to maintain frozen tundra through their trampling and the uprooting of trees and landscape. Serious ethical issues need to be considered before embarking on the creation of such a modified animal.

An impressive woolly mammoth frame specimen on public display at Pacifico Yokohama (©Getty Images | KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP)

Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at UCSB, told ScienceMag that if de-extinction is embraced as a mitigation tool, “it would be really easy to manufacture forests, savannas, and oceans full of Franken-species and Eco-zombies.”

Despite Jurassic Park-movie-style plots where people are being chased by a T-Rex, “the prospect of being hunted by an ancient predator is less important than the other questions mentioned above,” Rafferty said.

“Before we clone the first mammoth, we should carefully examine the reasons why we are doing so.

“If it is only another way to exalt human arrogance or pad the wallets of a few, I would argue that Pleistocene mammals are better off dead.”