One million plant and animal species are thought to be threatened with extinction and it’s all our fault.
A UN report reveals that the current rate of extinction is ‘tens to hundreds of times’ worse than it has been at any time over the last 10 million years and that over 500,000 threatened species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival.
This is a dire warning. So what can we do to avoid losing any more species?
Surely with Metro.co.uk’s Future Of Everything series already talking about Barbra Streisand paying a reported $50,000 (£40,000) to create two clones of her dear, departed dog, it can’t be too difficult, can it?
One potential strategy comes from the plant world.
‘Plants have beaten us – they have a much better way of conserving themselves,’ conservation scientist James Borrell, who works at Kew Gardens, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Seeds are amazing – they’re just a little package with all the instructions you need to build upon.’
Norway’s Millennium Seed Bank, a bunker built on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic, keeps seed samples from hundreds of thousands of plants stored deep underground in freezing conditions as humanity’s emergency back-up in case we drive any plant species to extinction.
The question then is obvious: Could we do something similar to preserve the DNA of animals for future generations? The closest we’ve got so far is perhaps The Frozen Ark, a charity that was founded in 2004 and which aims to create a slightly macabre Pokédex:
It coordinates the storage of tissue samples, DNA, gametes and cells from endangered animals around the world so that samples will remain accessible for future generations.
Once we have invented the necessary cloning technology, it will simply be a case of flicking through the catalogue and picking out which long-dead species we want to resurrect.
Perhaps ‘simply’ isn’t the word but amazingly, though the science is not quite there yet, there are some encouraging signs that it is heading in a similar direction to what Jurassic Park depicted over 25 years ago.
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Since Dolly the Sheep was first cloned in 1996, cloning has become an increasingly common part of scientific research.
Just like Barbara Streisand, if you’re willing to stump up the asking price, you can get your pets cloned as well.
But this is the easy part.
What has so far stopped scientists from reviving any extinct species are two things:
Science is taking baby steps towards them.
Way back in 2003, scientists were able to take a single cell from a Javan Banteng – an endangered relative of the cow – that had been frozen in 1980 and use it to clone embryos.
The embryos were then transferred into the wombs of regular cows and amazingly, one made it to full term, born after a normal gestation period of just over nine months.
Scientists are yet to try this on a species already extinct but experts are working on it.
A 2019 paper revealed that scientists in Japan had implanted the nuclei from some 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth cells into mouse eggs and were then able to observe the same biological reaction that usually takes place immediately prior to cell division.
It is expected to be a long process before we see any huge breakthrough moments:
‘I have to say we are very far from recreating a mammoth,’ researcher Kei Miyamoto told AFP.
Resurrecting dinosaurs appears to be a non-starter – at least for now – as the oldest DNA we’ve found is only a million years old and dinosaurs roamed the earth much earlier than that.
Jeff Goldblum can relax for now.
But even if we can’t sustain every species alive today, we might be able to bring them back in the future. This raises another controversial question: Just because we could, does that mean we should?
‘Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish, biologist R Alexander Pyron wrote in the Washington Post.
‘Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.’
When Pyron’s column was published, there was outcry from much of the academic community:
‘The sixth great extinction, the one we are currently living in… is the only extinction that a single species (humans) are primarily responsible for,’ Dr. Caroline Tucker, of the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote.
‘Of course we need to save endangered species.’
The problem with Pyron’s argument, according to biologist Dr Santiago Claramunt, is that there’s a big difference between small scale extinctions and a mass-extinction which could destroy the Earth’s biodiversity.
So even if the loss of individual species or variations within species is not acted upon, there could be bigger consequences for all of nature.
‘We have enough capacity, we have, we have the technology, we know what to do… it’s just the willpower,’ says James Borrell.
With humans and domesticated livestock, mostly cows and pigs, now accounting for 96% of total mammal biomass, it’ll take a big change for humans to look beyond themselves.
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
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