Home » Is Extinction Permanent: Ronan Taylor at TEDxYouth@NSNVA (Transcript)

Is Extinction Permanent: Ronan Taylor at TEDxYouth@NSNVA (Transcript)

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.

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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.

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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.

Now we get to the actual cloning. To begin the somatic cell nuclear cloning process, we need a compatible hard-shelled egg. Most dinosaurs were actually really small when they were born, so anything from a chicken egg to an ostrich egg would do.

Next, this nucleus of the somatic cell will be extracted, and then inserted into the egg cell of the egg. And then, bingo! Your dinosaur will develop as normal until it hatches.

That being said, the somatic cell cloning process does offer one major challenge. When a new nucleus is introduced into an egg cell the stress placed on it is enormous. This is because egg cells often reject foreign genetic material and die. Even though it will take numerous attempts, it will eventually succeed as seen with other cloned animals, like Celia, and of course, Dolly the sheep. One would normally assume that the modern world would be a very difficult place for dinosaurs to live in.

We have a different atmosphere, plant life is very different, and almost all the natural prey of predatory dinosaurs has gone extinct. In actuality, the difference in atmosphere will not be an issue, because today, our atmosphere is 21% oxygen, whereas in the mesozoic era, oxygen content ranged from 10-18%. Dinosaur clones would be able to withstand this change in oxygen content without suffering oxygen poisoning. Food is also not much of an issue. Many of the plants that herbivores ate during the mesozoic era are still around, and they’re relatively common.

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And they wouldn’t have much issue eating modern plants. As for the carnivores, they’ll be just fine too. Predatory dinosaurs weren’t exactly picky eaters. T-Rex would often resort to cannibalism. Now that we can understand cloning dinosaurs is a real possibility, we can extend this concept somewhat.

We have the potential to use these cloning methods to resurrect recently extinct species such as the megafauna. The megafauna are a recently extinct group of large animals that lived across the globe. These animals went extinct when early humans over hunted many of their larger prey items, and the animals themselves, causing them to go extinct. The megafauna went extinct about 10,000 years ago. They were animals like Sabre-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, and giant ground sloths.

The ecological niches these animals once occupied are still vacant today. This means that these animals would be the perfect candidates for reintroduction into the wild. But why should we bring them back? The ecosystems they once occupied are surviving without them. There’s one region of the world that still has its megafauna: Africa. Right around the time the megafauna went extinct, another species was spreading outward from Africa: humans.

Humans, as I mentioned, caused the megafauna’s extinction by hunting them and removing their food sources. We were basically an invasive species. We should reintroduce the megafauna because we owe them. Humans are the reason they went extinct, and now technology is giving us the chance to rectify our ancestors’ mistakes. Now, I think we should do this immediately.

I think we should focus on dinosaurs and other long gone animals because a zoo with those animals would easily be the most successful zoo on the planet. This is a wonderful thing, not because of the monetary gain but because successful zoos are one of the greatest sources for animal conservation. And ultimately, we could use the capital raised from these technologies to preserve species on the brink of extinction and mitigate some of the negative effects humans are having on wildlife. The revival of these animals is inevitable, and it will most certainly happen within our lifetime. Because of this, we are privileged.

We are privileged because we are the first generations that will live alongside some of the most majestic creatures to ever exist. Ultimately, I think these creatures can and will teach us to be more grateful and more respectful of the world we live in. Thank you.