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Can De-Extinction Save Our Planet? An Interview with Britt Wray

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The world of Jurassic Park may not be as far off as we thought.

By Eartheasy Posted Oct 13, 2017

Author Britt Wray with Sudan, last surviving male white rhino
The word “de-extinction” conjures up visions of dinosaur theme parks populated with predators never meant to roam the earth again, but the reality is a far cry from Hollywood scaremongering. Instead, scientists in the de-extinction or “resurrection biology” movement are asking questions about saving the planet. Can bringing back the woolly mammoth stave off the consequences of melting permafrost? Can resurrecting the passenger pigeon singlehandedly bring back forests?

Britt Wray explores this controversial new field in her book Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction (Greystone Books). A PhD candidate at the University of Copenhagen, Wray also co-hosts the BBC podcast Tomorrow’s World along with hosting and producing for CBC radio. Her new book takes us deep into the minds and labs of some of the world’s most progressive thinkers to find out whether de-extinction is fascinating science or a conservation catastrophe.

At the forefront of the book is the idea that de-extinction may be the world’s ‘last hope’ for preventing climate change. Leading scientists are seeing opportunities in the provocative promise of reviving extinct species, and projects like Pleistocene Park in Siberia are making daring attempts to rebuild ancient ecosystems and some of the creatures that lived there.

But despite these opportunities, de-extinction has its risks: what happens when we bring extinct creatures back into the wild? What impact might they have on animals already endangered? And what are the ethical and legal considerations that go along with such a venture? The unintended consequences of using breakthrough techniques like gene editing and selective breeding are many. Just because we can bring these animals back to life, does that mean we should?

Eartheasy was excited to talk with Britt Wray about these and other questions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Resurrection Biology and the Rise of the Necrofauna

Britt Wray, author of Rise of the Necrofauna
EE: The idea of bringing back the something like the mammoth conjures up Jurassic Park-like images for many people. But scientists involved in the de-extinction movement seem to be approaching this from a more conservation-minded perspective. Can you share some examples of how resurrection biology aims to help our struggling planet?

Wray: The researchers in George Church’s lab at Harvard are trying to create a proxy of the woolly mammoth by editing Asian elephant cells with mammoth DNA, but they’re also using the same gene editing tool to come up with a system that might alleviate currently endangered elephants from dying of EEHV, a herpes virus that’s killing elephants in captivity and in the wild. Church has suggested that 80 000 mammoth-proxies could be made in parallel in 8 years, and says we could therefore see their effect on the permafrost far faster than many people think.

Sergey and Nikita Zimov, who run Pleistocene Park, the area in Siberia where the first woolly mammoth proxies are likely to live, say that they’ve managed to reduce ground temperatures by 15 to 20 degrees Celsius with trampling from herbivores. So perhaps the same effect could be achieved without recreated mammoths at all. However, Church has said that due to the heft of mammoths and their likely somewhat destructive nature (based on the behavior of their closest living relatives, Asian elephants), they’d be much better tramplers than what we’ve got now.

EE: And mammoths trampling the permafrost have positive implications for climate change?

BW: The ecological justifications for mammoth de-extinction that relate to slowing permafrost thaw in Siberia are incredibly interesting, but haven’t been tested at scale to see if they would work. And depending on how you look at it, editing Asian elephants to be cold tolerant, with shaggy hair, so they can live in the Arctic might not be a practice of making mammoths, but an act of expanding the currently endangered elephants’ range.

De-extinction’s real value for conservation is changing the story from doom and gloom to something injected with new hope and inspiration.

I don’t see it as making mammoths or as saving elephants, but creating a new hybrid species altogether that can contain biodiversity from both types of proboscideans. It’s going to do something new to the world, not send it back in time.

EE: In the book, you talk about how humans tend to have romantic ideas of bringing back the wolf or the beaver, but when they are reintroduced and become overpopulated, are often eager to hunt them into extinction again. Do you think that there are ways of breaking this cycle while still being able to reintroduce species?

Wray: Humans may become eager at times to remove animals that have been rewilded into habitats near where they live if those animals cause problems for the people living there, such as when beavers’ dams cause water to back up over a bridge. This is representative of a ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) attitude that some people have, where they think, “Oh sure, in theory I’m fine with having X animal back in the wild, as long as it doesn’t come close to me or the things I depend on.”

Dolly Jørgensen is an environmental historian who studies animal reintroductions and shows that this attitude gets in the way of a lot of otherwise well-intentioned plans when it comes to having certain species back in particular habitats. So, in light of de-extinction, of course it would be horrible for such attitudes to cause “unextinct” species to become hunted in the wild after all the efforts have gone into making them and rewilding them there. So, to break the cycle, the important work that I think needs to be done centers on the human communities. Firstly, can the animals be put somewhere that isn’t anywhere close to any humans?

EE: Like Pleistocene Park in Siberia where the new mammoth “proxies” are likely to live.

Wray:
Exactly. That would be the ideal situation, and would mitigate a lot of the risk associated with angering people who might like to remove them. And secondly, if they will be rewilded into a range where humans could interact with them, work needs to be done long before the animals are actually engineered and put there to understand what the values, attitudes, beliefs and needs of that community are to responsibly ascertain if there’s any way to ensure peaceful coexistence with the “unextinct” animals, if rewilding happens there.

Book cover for Rise of the Necrofauna by Britt Wray

EE: There are a lot of interesting de-extinction candidates, but the reasons scientists pursue this field are so theoretical, such as the idea that passenger pigeons could regenerate forests. How much of this do you think is science looking for justification to continue?

Wray:
I think a lot of it is fascinating and technically challenging science looking for ecological justification. If you read Ben Mezrich’s book Woolly, you’ll get a chronological account of how mammoth de-extincton was first posed to George Church as a question from a journalist who asked, would it be possible? That started a fascinating and innovative train of thought about how it might work. Then, only later, was the ecological argument added in order to justify why one should potentially do it.

Ben Novak, who is the leader of the passenger pigeon de-extinction project, has wanted to desperately see the birds come back to life since he was 13 when he fell in love with them after seeing them in a picture book. He was heartbroken that the seemingly mythical creature that once flocked in the billions was extinct. I’ve seen the results of research about the passenger pigeon’s natural history change rather dramatically over the time that I’ve been researching his progress, which indicates different levels of feasibility for how the whole thing would work. But no matter the conclusions, the advocates of the project find a way to fit them into the ecological narrative.

Researchers are just normal people like the rest of us, full of hopes, dreams, values and biases that shape how they do their work. Overall, I think de-extinction is a mind-bogglingly cool idea from a technical standpoint, but not what conservation needs most. It’s real value for conservation is changing the story from doom and gloom to something injected with new hope and inspiration. Where de-extinction gets applied to endangered species is where I think it gets most interesting.

EE: Which makes one wonder how exciting these resurrected or improved species will be to hunters: can we prevent poaching and exotic meat markets?

Wray:
The high-tech tools that are needed to make de-extinction work will be a barrier to having just anyone set up an illegal market trade for their “unextinct” meats or fancy pets. However, because many of the animals will not be seen as a product of nature in the eyes of the law, they should theoretically be patentable, meaning that all sorts of deep pocketed interests could get involved here.

De-extinction is not just about resurrecting forms of extinct species, but about seeing what we can do for endangered species and ecosystems using the biotechnological tools that are available to us.

Regulatory measures may not be enough to ensure that the animals are protected from humans who want to profit from them. De-extinction still seems too far off for people to have developed strong frameworks for this, though guidelines are emerging for how to keep them safe.

EE: You asked in the book, “When talking about de-extinction for conservation, what is society’s threshold for human intervention along the extinction continuum?” Do you believe it will be possible for us to figure out how to make these choices, and how?

Wray:
A good place to start is as much public engagement around the topic as we can have. Increasingly, de-extinction is not just about resurrecting forms of extinct species, but about seeing what we can do for endangered species and ecosystems using the biotechnological tools that are available to us. The discourse is really shifting towards synthetic, biology-driven conservation and not just Jurassic Park-style projects.

This is more mundane research, in terms of not sounding as sci-fi, and it demonstrates well to people the benefits and possible risks of using biotech for conservation over all. We’re likely to see more of [these cases] springing out of labs, but de-extinction has been a great starting point for understanding the issues and opportunities we’re enabling for a new type of nature.

For more information about Britt Wray and her new book, Rise of the Necrofauna, visit Greystone Books.

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