Real Clear Science | Bioengineering Is Key to Fighting Extinction

March 27, 2024

To date, the Endangered Species Act has been the country’s key weapon in the fight against extinction. While the law’s protection mechanisms have helped rescue nearly 300 species from going the way of the passenger pigeon, African black rhino, or the dodo, like many government-run initiatives, it would benefit from private sector support. The rate of plant and animal disappearances is only speeding up as we face the sixth mass extinction.

Fortunately, a new conservation tool is emerging. A combination of cutting-edge science and free market innovation could make the prospect of a species going permanently extinct a thing of the past. Animals that have recently disappeared could possibly be resurrected and the populations of species on the brink permanently preserved.

This may sound like fiction from a Steven Spielberg film, but the technology is at our doorstep. Advances in bioscience and genetics have granted scientists the ability to reconstruct animal DNA, which can subsequently be blended with close genetic relatives to birth living, breathing creatures. Although they won’t be perfect clones, scientists believe these critters will be close.

Existing companies are already partnering with environmental groups to bring species back to life. For example, as reported in November, Colossal Biosciences is working in tandem with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to reintroduce the dodo bird to its once native habitat on the island nation off the coast of Madagascar.

Bioengineers are combining the bird’s reconstructed genome with its closest living relative, the Nicobar Pigeon, to create an animal that according to the company’s chief animal officer, will be “indiscernible from what we know of the dodo’s appearance.” For the first time since the 1600s, the bird could roam Mauritius thanks to cutting-edge science and innovation.

The northern white rhino is another example. The species has been decimated by poaching and is functionally extinct in the wild; only two are left on earth. Now, an effort is underway to revive the majestic animal and reintroduce them back to the plains of Africa.

The de-extinction of these animals and other similar projects being pursued by scientists has the cool factor to be sure. But the innovation extends well beyond curating interesting content for the Discovery Channel. Once the genetic engineering and follow-up processes are perfected, the approach could be deployed on a larger scale.

Ecosystems are extremely fragile; when one keystone species disappears, it can trigger a domino effect that devastates entire habitats. In the past, there have been few plausible approaches to restoring these eco-communities once weakened by human activity or climate change. Now, state-of-the-art bioengineering can help keep more Jenga blocks intact so the tower doesn’t come tumbling down.

Government policies aimed at preserving biodiversity like the Endangered Species Act are needed. But to supplement law, the larger conservation movement needs reinforcements. Emerging bioscience technology—which up until now has only been a dream of conservation leaders—can help.