Tuesday, March 26, 2013

De-extinction - a concept that has walked the thin line between science fiction and reality

A few days back when scientists inched closer to reviving an Australian frog species that has been extinct for the last 30 years, they also revived the world's fascination for de-extinction - a concept that has walked the thin line between science fiction and reality. Bringing to life species that have been wiped off the face of earth is a dream many geneticists have pursued for years. In India, too, many are dreaming that dream.

"If India were to aggressively pursue it, there are at least three extinct species that can get a shot at coming back from the dead,'' says Sandeep Sharma of the Washington-based Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "High on the list is the Asiatic cheetah that went extinct in India soon after Independence. The others are the pink-headed duck and the mountain quail. There are a few pre-historic species, too, but then it might get too ambitious."

Indian geneticists have been attempting to clone the Asiatic cheetah - a favourite animal of the Mughal emperor Akbar who reportedly had an army of 1000 cheetahs accompany him on his hunting expeditions. But efforts to recreate the majestic predator have encountered several roadblocks. "The biggest hurdle is procuring the cell-line of the cheetah and defining protocols for somatic cell transfer. Once this happens, we have a realistic chance of reviving the cheetah in India," says S Shivaji of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad.

De-extinction itself is a subject that has drawn diverse opinions. Those opposing it say that if a species went extinct over a period of time -- Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest propounds this is nature's way of balancing itself -- is it prudent to re-introduce it in an ecosystem where some other species may have taken over its role? Ulhas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society says it makes no sense at all. "De-extinction is unlikely to work because factors that caused the original extinction continue to operate."

However, de-extinction proponents continue to be gung-ho about its prospects. "It should not be an either/ or question," says Ryan Phelan, executive director of US NGO Revive & Restore which recently organized a much-publicized conference on the subject along with National Geographic and TED. "It's really an all one continuum. What's good for extinct species will be great for endangered ones."

If man does indeed succeed in playing god, it might just be Jurassic Park all over again, hopefully minus the horror.
@Sent from android phone

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