Here is the full transcript of Ronan Taylor’s TEDx Talk: Is Extinction Permanent at TEDxYouth@NSNVA conference.
I’m here today to talk about the possibilities and benefits of cloning animals that have become extinct. When I first started writing this, I had one rule: avoid Jurassic Park.
I told myself, “Ronan, you’re writing a serious presentation about biology. Don’t write about some adventure film, you’ll be laughed right off the stage.” But then I realized if I had not seen Jurassic Park as a kid, I wouldn’t be up here talking about extinct animals and it just seems inappropriate not to mention the film.
Let me tell you something that’s startling. Over 99% of all life that has existed on Earth is extinct. Just imagine. Billions and billions of species gone forever and there will be trillions more by the time our planet becomes uninhabitable. Extinction is the fate of all species, including ourselves. There’s no getting around it. Everything dies.
That being said, in the past 100 years our understanding of genetics has increased dramatically. It was only in 1952 when the Hershey-Chase experiment confirmed that DNA was a molecule that carried genetic information. Only 12 years ago, we successfully mapped the human genome. As I speak, the biotech company BioViva is conducting the first human trials on telomere extension therapy. We have made some absolutely astonishing advances in biotechnology.
Would it be too much of a stretch to assume we could use biotechnology to clone certain species of extinct animal? If you do a quick Google search you’d believe that cloning mammoths is a huge stretch and if you want to see a dinosaur, well, you’d better cancel those plans. While some believe it to be impossible, the greatest opposition to the concept of cloning extinct animals seems to be moral opposition.
People argue that committing such acts would be playing God. That argument is incomplete because on the other side of that coin, the human race, directly and indirectly, has caused the extinction of countless species. We destroy around 12 million hectares of forest a year, and don’t get me started on climate change.
If you consider cloning extinct animals to be playing God then don’t use your car because every time you start it, you contribute to climate change which is causing numerous species to go extinct. To me, it seems that playing God just means performing actions that have a profound and emphatic effect, which would make us all gods. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t know any gods. Joking aside, this argument does not consider the whole picture.
A more valid argument against cloning extinct animals is the fact that acts of animal cruelty would have to be committed during the process. A lot of cloned animals die during embryonic development, and that isn’t exactly healthy for the animal carrying the developing embryo in its womb. It can lead to physical injury, disease, and even death.
As someone who cares deeply about animal welfare, I would not be willing to clone extinct animals if I knew acts of animal cruelty would have to be committed in the process. But once again, technology has come to the rescue. Instead of using live animals, as mothers to cloned animals we could utilize extra corporeal pregnancy, or, more simply, an artificial uterus.
Growing clone embryos in an artificial uterus wouldn’t prevent embryo deaths, but it would prevent any harm from being inflicted upon fully grown host animals. Cloning this way is humane despite embryo deaths. The fact that embryos are able to feel pain after 20 weeks is simply not true. It’s a complex issue, and we could spend all day discussing whether or not we should clone extinct animals. The thing is it’s already been done.
In the year 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex, dubbed Celia, went extinct. After Celia’s death, a biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, gathered soft tissue from Celia and attempted to clone her. In 2003, the company succeeded, and a clone of Celia was born. Unfortunately, the clone didn’t survive very long. The reason behind the Celia clone’s death is quite simple and is a serious challenge that must be overcome in order to clone extinct animals.
I will address this issue right now by describing a process that may seem a bit more like science fiction than reality, but I hope to dissuade you of that. This is how you clone a dinosaur. The first things you need are called somatic cells, from a dinosaur, obviously. Somatic cells are diploid cells, meaning they contain two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Somatic cells are quite common in an animal’s body, for example, you have 220 types of these cells in your body.
They can be blood cells, or even liver cells. You might be thinking, “Great, we know what type of cell we’re looking for, but what’s the point? Dinosaur remains aren’t bone, they’re fossils. All their organic material’s been replaced by rock.” Not quite.
In 2005, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer discovered a variety of different cells within the femur bone of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that had managed to remain intact for 68 million years. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Others have found soft tissue in the horn of a Triceratops, the tail of a Prognathodon, and the embryo of a Lufengosaurus. In fact, the oldest soft tissue sample we know of is from ancient bacteria, and it is 419 million years old. That sample wasn’t useless either. Scientists have been able to extract DNA from it.
What could cause such incredible feats of preservation? The answer is iron. All animals cells contain iron. Iron allows the cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. This iron is kept bound to the cell because iron itself is a very reactive molecule. When an organism dies, the bonds holding down the iron are broken. This can generate what are called free radicals.
Free radicals cause amino acids within the cell to link together. This produces a formaldehyde-like effect, allowing the cell to become more resistant to decay. Scientists have recently discovered soft tissues in a multitude of fossils, demonstrating that this type of preservation of organic material is surprisingly common. In order to get the somatic cells, you need fossilized bone, not a mosquito trapped in amber, as Jurassic Park may lead you to believe.
Once you have a somatic cell, you’ll face the same problem that caused the Celia clone to die so early. These cells will almost certainly be from an adult dinosaur because juvenile dinosaur fossils are incredibly rare. When the original Celia died she was 13 years old, which is old for an ibex. Using Celia’s own somatic cells to produce a clone meant the clone was born with the cells of a very old ibex, causing the clone to function as if it were a really old ibex. This is what caused Celia’s clone to die so early.
This problem is a solvable one, but in order to do so, we first must understand what causes aging. Every time a cell in your body divides, the telomeres in your DNA shorten. Telomeres are the caps on the rods in your DNA, similar to the classic caps you have on your shoelaces. When the telomeres shorten, you get older, simple as that. Because Celia’s DNA was 13 years old, the clone was born with aged DNA.
It’s surreal to think about it, because the Celia clone was essentially a baby with the cellular make up of an octogenarian. This problem, of course, would apply to a dinosaur as well, and we don’t want our dinosaur to die early. Luckily, we have telomerase. Simply put, telomerase is an enzyme that extends telomeres. Applying telomerase to an aged dinosaur cell would solve any age-related issues.