by Amreetap Mukherjee
The voices that went silent forever, could be heard again. Genomics in the 21st Century has gone through an evolution, where we can do the undoable. Childhood science fiction is a reality now. Capability to create new species(Nishijima and Iijima, 2013) (Houdebine, 2009) is an asset to genomics now, as humans have been modifying the earth in a new way using genetic engineering to create milestones in scientific revolution. TEDxDeExinction event in 2013 was the first event that was carried out by National Geographic, which enlightened the world with this fascinating idea of bringing back extinct species, and it was known as De-Extinction or Resurrection Biology. The idea is to reconstruct their last remaining genetic information, or to create genetic information from scratch of fossils and in-vitro it into a species which is evolutionarily the most similar to them. So, let us dive into the world of dinosaurs, and mammoths; explore childhood fantasies today and know how genomics has created doors for achieving heights of fascinations as well as ruin us if gone wrong.
In 2016, IUCN provided a framework for researchers and stakeholders, which says the term de-extinction can be misleading but it rather emphasises on the greater possibilities of resurrecting the extinct animals as per their genetic and physiological background. But what about behaviour? To know more on this, let us first look into how and what exactly science has managed and planned to do so far. Passenger Pigeon and Woolly Mammoths are the two most fascinating projects that were considered by the scientists. In order to return them, to their habitat, for example, Woolly Mammoths to Tundra Habitat, which is claimed to have a broader impact on climate change (Loi et al., 2014), we need to make sure that they survive. The Government of Canada has invested in the genomic technology that advances the research with resurrection of Passenger Pigeon (Novak, 2018). If the project is successful, we will have the skies soaring with their regained population. But who will teach them how to behave as a passenger pigeon in particularity? To behave is a knowledge that is passed hereditarily and to gain it, parenting is important, unfortunately we do not have any passenger pigeon to guide them like previous, as men led them to extinction around 1914.
De-extinction is also called as Disruptive Conservation Project, which enhances ecosystem preservation with the use of modern genomic technologies like Cloning and Genome Editing using CRISPR Cas9 (Asmamaw and Zawdie, 2021) and sometimes selective breeding. The question arises, whether it is ethical or not, as bringing back animals like Sumatran Rhino, Black-footed Ferret, Florida Panther, or, North American Plains Bison can be interesting and enrich our lost bio-diversity, but the question remains if they will be a threat to the existing organism or create problems like competition for food and habitat. Let’s now know about the history of genomics in brief, especially in bringing back the lost and dead.
Genetic Engineering has been in use since the 70s (Jackson et al., 1972). The first genome editing using CRISPR was done in the 1987 (Ishino et al., 1987) and it was a revolution. From cloning our gene of interest into a vector (Green and Sambrook, 2021) and using them according to our interest, technology grew stronger. Now, we have power to bring our childhood dreams come true. Fantasies drive creativity, unless its evil. From creating genetically modified human with CRISPR (Greely, 2019) and going to jail, to creating bio-weapons(Nathanson, 2002) or making artificial mutations, we have seen it all. With the help of these techniques people can go crazy. Imagine a Tyrannosaurus rex being really brought back in the modern world, and then some other group creates a genetically modified Gorilla with emphasised growth hormone. Would you still go to the cinemas? I would not as I can easily see a King Kong versus Rex fight in Colchester and would be a pleasure eating pop-corn and enjoying “Jurassic Park: The End of the Human Race” live with naked eyes. Keeping the jokes apart, we now know how important it is to maintain ethics while working with genetic engineering (Ormandy et al., 2011), and especially in de-extinction project.
While the greater impact includes wildlife conservation, climate control, ecosystem restoration and repopulating lost diversity, it should be kept in mind that the impact of bringing back long lost species could be far more worse than comical, even manipulating genetic information, which is indeed very easy in this complex modern world, can be a reason to the threats to existing species and their gene pool in a broader aspect. Now the question remains whether genomics is a curse or boon. Shakespeare said “All’s Well that Ends Well”, if we take the positive sides of the things and be a little gentle towards the planet, perhaps we can save ourselves from another mass extinction.
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