By Virginia Gewin
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is no stranger to potentially controversial species restoration plans: His agency will soon poison non-native fish in an effort to re-establish the Paiute cutthroat trout to its historic range.
Still, the practicalities of efforts to revive extinct species raised mixed emotions among Bonham and participants at the “De-Extinction: Ethics, Law and Politics” conference held at the Stanford Law Auditorium last Friday.
Addressing the scientists in the audience, Bonham (who made clear he wasn’t speaking for the agency) said he and colleagues were “scared, worried, thrilled, excited, and angry at you guys for exploring this idea.” Yet, with the planet facing massive biodiversity loss, he said, de-extinction may be one of the few options for protecting species in perpetuity.
Bonham was one of 15 speakers at Friday’s conference, only the fourth meeting on the topic and the first to dig deep into pragmatic issues of liability, justice, animal welfare and regulation surrounding the creation and release of once-extinct organisms. Raising the dead, it seems, also raises a raft of legal and regulatory uncertainties.
The conference’s sparse, roughly 60-person turnout was a stark contrast to the flashy, live-streamed TEDx De-Extinction talks, which garnered 11,000 unique viewers on March 15 when researchers unveiled the technological advances that may enable the resurrection of passenger pigeons and woolly mammoths.
GMO or endangered species?
Most speakers agreed that reviving extinct species is undeniably cool, but the political realities of releasing revived species into nature prompts a number of considerations — including what legal and regulatory responses will be triggered.
For example, would a wooly mammoth, created through the most careful editing of an Asian elephant’s genome, be considered a genetically-modified organism (GMO)? Possibly. The fact is that any organism re-created using genomic tools would likely not be an exact replica of what once roamed Earth. As such, would a revived organism be considered a new species? Another wrinkle: how and when would the Endangered Species Act be applicable?
The Endangered Species Act defines a species as endangered if it is so throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “The question would come — if it’s bred in captivity, what is its range?” said Alex Camacho, director of the University of California at Irvine Law Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources. “Clearly, the Endangered Species Act didn’t contemplate the revival of species.”
Interestingly, if DNA exists, the line between extinct and endangered starts to get blurry — so much so that Stewart Brand, founder of the non-profit Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore program (focused on resurrecting the passenger pigeon), suggested that a new category of potentially recoverable, or “exceptionally endangered,” species is emerging.
In addition to the legal and regulatory concerns, the biggest political concern was whether de-extinction would compromise political resolve to stave off extinctions. If de-extinction takes the urgency out of preventing extinction, it will become a shunt for taking no action, said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and current president of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife.
To that end, Bonham made a personal plea to de-extinction advocates. We need a social compact between the regulators and the scientific-innovators to figure out how to pursue de-extinction together — and how to make clear that preventing extinctions remains an important part of the narrative, he told the audience.
How technology shapes life
“De-extinction is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing how genetic manipulations could interact with conservation biology,” said Kate Jones, a bat ecologist at University College London, in her talk. “We’re entering a time on our planet where things are completely changing — we might have fake trees to clean up carbon in the atmosphere — and we need to be prepared to deal with that.”
Meeting organizer Hank Greely, a Stanford bioethicist, agreed. Recreating extinct animals is only one part of a potential universe of man’s increasing ability to shape life through technology, he said after the meeting. Greely considers himself a qualified supporter of de-extinction, if done correctly. After the conference, he said, he came away with a few more questions about what “doing it carefully” would mean.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist covering everything from food security to acidifying oceans from her perch in Portland, Oregon. She is also a contributor to the recently-published Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age.