Genetic Engineering: New Hope For Rare Species?

Although Spix macaws exist in several captive populations, the last known individual in the wild disappeared in 2000.

With so many animals and birds recorded on a globally registered watch list, there are those that could be gone from us within the blink of an eye. Interestingly, emerging biological and preservation technologies currently being developed might be a way of saving endangered species.

The art of fiction gave us a realistic look at bringing back long-gone species by way of movies like “Jurassic Park.” Although bringing back creatures dead for longer than 10,000 years is considered impossible, the emerging science is certainly there for more recent extinct creatures. In this time, much of that previously unrealized concept is closer to becoming reality.

Back in 2003, a DNA sample retained from the now extinct Pyrenean Ibex (a type of goat extinct since 2000) was used to clone and bring back to life the goat in a lab setting. Unfortunately, the goat died shortly after its birth. But with that little bit of success, large hopes have been fueled by the concept of eradicating extinction in as complete a manner as is genetically possible. More recently, there is hope that a Wooly Mammoth can be resurrected within the span of two years. With well-preserved bodies of the creature extracted from the Siberian permafrost, the DNA samples are as fresh as can possibly be. Nevertheless, even with some remarkable samples available, the science is a young one. It will no doubt go though much trial and error before possibly becoming a routine procedure.

Currently, there are more than one hundred species of exotic birds on the endangered list. Many scientists have dedicated their lives to the preservation of these species. With habitat changes, predator relocations, and climate changes, our precious birds have proven to be a challenge to adaptation of new locations or procedures designed to take the place of their once natural habits. Some of those birds will die out, lost to us. But it doesn’t have to be like that at all.

The establishment of ‘frozen aviaries’ is a unique preservation concept that promises to maintain the stem cells from birds that can later be used to revive a rare breed. The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh has started to collect stem cells from rare chicken breeds with the intent to use them if needed some decades down the road. With scientific manipulation, the ability to reduce bad genes that might otherwise jinx the attempts to strengthen the quality of the embryo is enhanced. Eventually, with the right science in place, the resurrection of extinct birds might become a commonplace event. Better, as birds are nearing endangerment, the proper procedures can be implemented to increase seriously waning populations.

With small genetic manipulations, the DNA of birds that are susceptible to their changing habitats, either by encroaching disease or evolving climate, could be made to resist such invaders and viral enemies. In time, the birds we have recently lost and/or those becoming increasingly rare might someday be revitalized.