Conservation Cloning: Feasible Way to Save Species

Adam Suvalskas: Building & Construction Tech.

Maria Peralta: Animal Science

Derek O’Dea: Turf Grass Management

Today, only four magnificent Northern White rhinos remain (Wei-Haas, 2015). These light-skinned rhinoceros have been critically endangered since the beginning of the 21st century.  The San Diego Zoo in California has one female and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya has three females, and the last remaining male (Wei-Haas, 2015). Conservationists are fighting to prevent this species from becoming extinct. Since the last remaining male Northern White rhino is at an age where it can no longer successfully breed, traditional conservation tactics such as captive breeding are failing to provide effective results (Wei-Haas, 2015). These passive, enormous creatures used to inhabit the grassy plains of Southern Africa and roam freely, but now these defenseless survivors are on the brink of extinction without much hope for survival left (National Geographic, n.d.). Luckily, there is one method that can become the solution to repopulate the Northern White rhinoceros and similar species that are so far gone, where only a small population of the same gender or infertile individuals remain. Cloning, the process of producing a genetically identical individual using the DNA of another individual, has been used over the past decade to revive extinct species. We can use this process to clone the last male White rhino to create a male that would successfully mate with the remaining females, and thus resolve the captive breeding issue. In order to accomplish this, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and private organizations should provide funds for cloning-based conservation programs to repopulate endangered species that cannot be saved through traditional conservation methods.

During the past couple of decades, the advances in science and technology allow scientists to do what before seemed like science fiction. After the birth of Dolly in 1996, the first successfully cloned mammal, excitement filled the scientific community and led to further investigation and development in the field of genetic engineering (Kolata, 1997). In 2003, a cloning experiment was performed to clone a Javan Banteng, a breed of wild cattle. The project resulted in the birth of two genetically identical calves. These two Javan Bantengs resulted from the DNA of a biopsy of a banteng that died in the 1980s (CNN, 2003). According to Dr. Robert Lanza (2003), the chief scientist in this experiment, both calves looked “vigorous and healthy — like little Bambis with their big brown eyes and ears” (CNN, 2003). Another experiment, accomplished in 2009, was to clone the Bucardo, an extinct wild goat indigenous to mountainous regions of Spain. The researchers used frozen fibroblasts from the last living Bucardo female that died in 2000. From these fibroblasts, the scientists extracted the DNA of the Bucardo and injected it into unfertilized eggs of a domestic goat. These were cultured in a dish and an incubator, at the appropriate temperature. The embryos developed and the best ones were selected and introduced in the oviduct of the surrogate or host mother, in this case the domestic goat from which the unfertilized embryos were obtained. The experiment resulted in the birth of a Bucardo that was genetically identical to the donor cell. Due to a lung abnormality, the newborn unfortunately did not survive long after birth (Folch et al. 2009).

Another similar attempt was performed in 2011 when scientists from the Royan Institute for Reproductive Biomedicine cloned the near-extinct Esfahan Mouflon. This Iranian wild sheep was cloned using the same method as Folch et al., this time using a domestic sheep instead of a domestic goat (Haijan et al., 2011).   This experiment also resulted in the birth of a living animal, a baby Esfahan Mouflon, but it also died soon after birth. The cause is not known, but the necropsy performed on the corpse did not reveal any physical abnormalities (Haijan et al., 2011). This institute was relentless and continued to work on this experiment after this bittersweet outcome. Finally, in the summer of 2015, this four-year project gave rise to Maral, a baby Mouflon (Dehghan, K., 2015). The news of this birth was reported by the Guardian on August 5th 2015, and at this time Maral had survived fourteen days. Science and technology has advanced to the point that we can now clone animals.

The next step after cloning an animal would be its reintroduction to its natural habitat.  While cloning provides skepticism to many who watched the film “Jurassic Park,” it is not what we intend to accomplish.  The goal is to repopulate old species that used to thrive in different habitats before they became endangered.  A successful reintroduction occurred in Slovakia with the European Ground Squirrel (Lőbbová & Hapl, 2014). The conservationist, Lőbbová and Hapl (2014), were able to reintroduce the squirrel into its natural habitat and carefully monitor them to ensure their survival.  This was a great example of how we can save endangered species by reintroducing them into the wild.

With the reintroduction of endangered species and the endless possibilities of protecting and repopulating the endangered ones, there needs to be more funding provided and more science experimentation towards conservation cloning.  To do this, we need more organizations to provide the funds.  We already have government organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  But the government is not necessarily going to provide all the funding that scientists need to help these endangered species.  There are non-profit organizations such as Revive and Restore that are founded by scientists that believe that cloning could bring back extinct species (Brand, 2013).  Also, there are other organizations that provide funds, such as San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) and the international conservation organization, which has helped numerous species be removed from the endangered species list (SDZ Global Wildlife Conservancy, 2014).  The SDZG (2014) has repopulated over 30 species since the time of their formation and has also been the leader in ending extinction in over 35 countries across the globe, while the Revive and Restore organization is working towards DNA cloning of animals who are in the greatest of dangers for extinction (Brand, 2013). These two organizations not only provide funding toward the cause, but are acting upon themselves to help.  The SDZG and Revive and Restore are just one of many organizations dedicated to the repopulation of species and there are others that need to show themselves to save endangered species.  These organizations are the example for other organizations to rise up and help in the fight to end extinction.

Many critics of de-extinction may point out that the necessary process, development, and research will be quite expensive and not worth the money and effort. Critics arguing this point would be very correct when talking about already extinct species, especially ones that have been extinct for decades or centuries, but not when talking about species that still have a chance at survival. Most scientists believe it will be possible to revive the long-extinct woolly mammoths in the near future, but there is currently no way to “synthesize a genome-size chunk of mammoth DNA, let alone develop it into a full animal” (Wade, 2008, p. 1). Dr. Stephan Schuster, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University, estimates that the cost of producing a cell that only resembles a mammoth embryo would cost $10 million, not to mention another $2 million just to recover the genome that is required prior to attempting to create said embryo (Wade, 2008 p.1), this process would cost about as much as $12 million before it even starts. This starting cost, along with the millions upon millions of other dollars that would be needed to support the reintroduction of a mammoth into the wild, greatly support the arguments of de-extinction critics.

Cloning of common animals that are not endangered however, like cats or cows, is actually relatively cheap when compared to the costs of cloning an extinct species like the wooly mammoth. According to a reporter from DailyMail.com, a couple had their yellow Labrador retriever cloned in 2009 for just $155,000 (DailyMail, 2012).  The article also reported a cat in Texas being cloned for just $50,000 (DailyMail, 2012). Through these examples you can see that the process of cloning species that are still readily available compared to long extinct species is not as expensive as one might think.

There are already plans, acts, and systems in place that successfully conserved many endangered species around the world, and are much cheaper than the estimated cost to bring back a mammoth. One example is the case of the California condor, where only a small population existed in the the late 1980’s. (Welz, 2013) This small population was closely monitored in captivity because it was going extinct in the wild (Welz, 2013).  Since that time, hundreds of condors live in the California, Mexican, and Arizona wild, at a cost of over $35 million dollars (Welz, 2013). That amount might seem like a lot of money, but when put into perspective through the comparison with the cost of bringing back the mammoth, it is really not. The $35 million spent on the successful reintroduction of the California condor into the wild was over a time period of around 35 years (Welz, 2013). Attempting to bring back a wooly mammoth has a startup cost of $12 million, not to mention other costs of research, reintroduction, and monitoring, and it still might not even work (Welz, 2013). The cost of potentially bringing back species that were extinct for thousands of years is equal to about a third of the cost of successful reintroduction of endangered species into the wild. Conservation of species can bring about benefits and problems that have not been known before. In the case of the California condor, its reintroduction into the wild has brought about awareness and protection of lead poisoning, which affects dozens of other species in the Arizona and California wilderness (Welz, 2013). Just like the condor, the White rhino can eventually be reintroduced into the wild, however we first need to repopulate the species through cloning so that we can have a viable population that will reproduce.

Other opponents of cloning-based programs argue that the manipulation of animals in this way can lead to abnormalities and defects in cloned animals. The Burcardo for instance, did not survive because it was born with a lung abnormality (Folch et al., 2009). The Esfahan Mouflon that was born in 2011 did not survive after birth as well. No physical evidence of abnormalities was found but “veterinary pathologists believed that histopathological features of domestic sheep organs may not be a suitable landmark for assessment of wild sheep” (Haijan et al., p. 965). Many experts argue that the “cloning syndrome”, abnormalities presented during the lifespan of the clone, is due to incompatibility between the host mother and the embryo. In the last twenty years, technology has advanced so quickly and improved in a short amount of time. Like any new technology there is always trial and error when it comes to complex techniques. Today there is evidence of clones that survived such as Dolly, the two Javan Bantengs and Maral. With more research and development, we can overcome the obstacles that have not allowed other clones to survive after birth and thus help repopulate endangered species that cannot be saved through the usual conversations programs.

For the 11th time, world governments met at the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) to strategize and determine a worldwide conservation plan (Platt, 2012). They came up with a plan through the year 2020, worth an estimated $80 million dollars (Platt, 2012). While it may seem like a very expensive price, McCarthy et. al. (2012) explain how “total costs are small relative to the value of the potential goods and services” with their plan (p.949).  This plan only focuses on conservation tactics already in place today, and fails to consider how conservation cloning could factor into their plan. A professor from the University of Chicago, Casey B. Mulligan (2011), states that “By bringing cloning into the set of public policy instruments, we can protect more species, reduce economic costs of protection, or both.” (Mulligan, 2011). If these world governments factored in the possibility of cloning into their plan, maybe the costs needed to achieve this goal could be significantly lowered. With 12% of this $80 billion dollar plan already funded, other private agencies need to step in and help out soon because the longer we wait, the more expensive this plan will be (McCarthy et. al., 2012).

Currently, conservation through cloning is not an effective strategy, as “current cloning techniques have an average success rate of less than 5 percent” (Jabr, 2013). But, recent successes in the field of conservation cloning show the potential it has to be a feasible way to restore populations (Jabr, 2013). With added time, funds, and research, cloning could become more successful and reliant of a strategy to help endangered species that cannot be saved using other conservation methods. The benefits of mastering successful cloning techniques are endless, as more conservation activists and efforts could arise and be inspired from resurrecting species (Welz, 2013). Scientists and researchers around the world “remain optimistic that cloning will become a useful tool for conservation in the future” and “that efforts to archive the genetic information of endangered wildlife are worthwhile” (Jabr, 2013).  If organizations such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would join the efforts to make cloning a consistent and reliable tactic to conserve endangered and near-extinct species, then animals like the dwindling Northern White rhino could have a great chance at thriving in the wild once again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference List

 

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Evan

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