The Jurassic Park Conundrum: Should Extinct Animals Get A Second Chance?

Nearly 30 years after the original “Jurassic Park” hit theatres, the premise of resurrecting extinct animals has evolved from sci-fi silliness to genuine scientific debate.

The understanding of DNA — and how to harness it — has reached a point where some researchers believe they can actually reverse an extinction. That means not only creating a long-dead beast in a laboratory but reintroducing it to the environment.

Such efforts have already begun, and the mere possibility of success has divided the scientific community about its ethical, cultural, and environmental consequences.

Scientists have long dreamed of bringing back the ice age’s woolly mammoth, for example. Then last year, a Harvard geneticist said his startup could make that a reality within 10 years by combining woolly mammoth DNA with modern elephants.

That’s controversial enough, but the debate reached new heights this month with news that Australian researchers hope to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger. It died out nearly a century ago, and proponents claim that bringing back one of the continent’s only apex predators could help restore the environment.

Both projects face plenty of critics. Some ask why these researchers want to bring back extinct animals when the world has thousands of near-extinct species in need of help. Still others, such as Australian Aboriginal groups, view the efforts through a colonial lens and want researchers to consider the desires of native peoples.

But with backing from both private investors and public institutions, it seems clear that projects focused on genetic tinkering aren’t going anywhere.

A life-size replica of a woolly mammoth with skeleton at Shanghai Natural History Museum. Photo: Shutterstock

 

To make a Tasmanian tiger from scratch

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, represents one of the many species killed off by human hunters and the introduction — also by people — of invasive species.

To bring back the animal, the University of Melbourne has partnered with Colossal Biosciences, a genetic engineering company from Dallas, Texas. Founded by Harvard geneticist George Church, Colossal is also working on resurrecting the woolly mammoth.

In March, the company announced a funding round that resulted in $75 million from new investors. That will quickly accelerate the firm’s research, Colossal said in a news release.

Though Colossal’s leaders sound certain they can pull off “de-extinction”, a long road stretches ahead. First, researchers don’t have a complete genetic sequence for the thylacine. So, as in “Jurassic Park,” they plan to fill the missing gaps with DNA from its closest living relative. In this case, that’s the numbat, a small Australian marsupial with a genome sequence that scientists decoded this year.

Numbat marsupial

The Australian numbat is the closest living relative of the Tasmanian tiger. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Then Colossal must solve the gestation problem. For a year, the company has been working on two devices: an artificial uterus and an artificial pouch — both critical to the animal’s development.

After that comes what could be the most difficult part: reintroducing the animal to the wild.

While still a giant leap for extinct animals, recent history shows that reintroducing animals to an environment can yield positive results. Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park famously improved the park’s entire ecosystem. The same thing happened in Australia with the Tasmanian devil.

Supporters of the return of the thylacine say Colossal’s project can do the same for the Tasmanian bush.

Not everyone agrees.

Debating de-extinction

Critics of Colossal’s mission make plenty of compelling arguments for letting extinct animals remain in the past.

For starters, an animal with spliced DNA may not behave the same way as its ancestors, potentially causing environmental problems instead of solving them.

Another issue is that the environments themselves have changed. Australia now has many foxes and deer — both invasive species, Chris Johnson, an ecologist at the University of Tasmania, told National Geographic. Those animals might be too fast for the Tasmanian tiger to successfully hunt, Johnson said.

There’s also the backlash from Indigenous groups. The technology behind de-extinction reflects a colonial mindset, said Emma Lee, a professor at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology

“Our culture and our animals are not their scientific playground,” Lee said.

And finally, there’s the concern from environmental groups that the glamour of bringing back extinct animals distracts from conservation.

As scientific advancements increasingly wield the power to transform fantasy into reality, the debates over their efficacy will continue.

For that reason, Jeff Goldblum’s acerbic dialogue from the original “Jurassic Park” feels more prophetic than ever:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”