Humans have now altered virtually every ecosystem on the planet, fueling extinction rates tens to hundreds of times higher than any point in the last 10 million years. It’s a crisis of such epic proportions that some conservationists are now calling for unprecedented interventions: tapping into our newfound power to shape genomes as a way to save endangered species and even bring back the ones we’ve lost.
“This field is wrestling with this question of how much do we intervene? How fast? Who decides?” said Ryan Phelan, co-founder and executive director of the wildlife conservation organization Revive & Restore. “This is new science that we’re pioneering.”
Revive & Restore has partnered with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and ViaGen Pets & Equine to clone a critically endangered Przewalski’s horse, the last truly wild horse species on the planet. The goal is to fight back against what conservationists call “the extinction vortex”. Once a population of animals is small enough, inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity can accelerate that population loss, putting the species on an irreversible path to extinction. But cloning has allowed scientists to produce a Przewalski’s stallion from lost genes—in this case, from four decades ago—creating entirely new bloodlines and returning much-needed genetic variety to the herd.
“A lot of people, when they hear the word cloning and they think about what we do, their first thought is, well, you’re playing God,” said ViaGen president Blake Russell. “Cloning technology actually gives us a chance to more intelligently look back and bring genetic vitality back into a population.”
At a time of cascading losses, saving endangered species—even if that means banking their genomes in freezers—is at the very least an act of hope. But while conservationists are busy storing the code of life, the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on how and when these genetic tools should be used. And to ask the question: how far should we go to engineer nature in order to save it?
Journalist Sam Eaton of Scripps News meets cloned Przewalski’s horse Ollie at the ViaGen facility in Texas | Scripps News