Recently, it has been announced that a group of researchers in the US are planning to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction. While some scientists think there could be benefits to doing this, others are worried about the potential risks and negative consequences of de-extinction! So, should we bring extinct animals back to life? Let’s discuss it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Extinct (adj) – not now existing

There is a concern that the Asian elephant will become extinct! 

Species (n) – a set of animals or plants in which the members have similar characteristics to each other and can breed with each other

Over a hundred species of insects are found in this area

To raise (v) – to raise money is to succeed in getting money

I want to start my own business if I can raise enough money

Gene (n) – a part of the DNA in a cell that controls the physical development, behaviour, etc, of an animal or plant and is passed on from parents

The illness is believed to be caused by a defective gene

Hybrid (n) – a plant or animal that has been produced from two different types of plant or animal, especially to get better characteristics

The animal looks like a hybrid of a zebra and a horse

Embryo (n) – an animal that is developing either in its mother’s womb or in an egg

Between the eighth week of development and birth a human embryo is called a foetus

Tundra (n) – part of the very large area of land in North Asia, North America, and Northern Europe where, because it is cold, trees do not grow and ground below the surface is permanently frozen

Reindeer roam the tundra in large herds

Ecosystem (n) – all the living things in an area and the way they affect each other and the environment 

Pollution can have disastrous effects on the delicately balanced ecosystem

Jurassic park was one of my favourite movies to watch when I was younger. I’m sure most of you have seen, or at least heard of, the Jurassic Park and World movies before. The basic plot revolves around scientists using technology to bring dinosaurs back from extinction! While this might sound like a story only possible in movies and science fiction books, in the real world a group of experts and business people are considering using modern technology to do something similar. So, should we bring extinct animals back to life? 

The inspiration for today’s episode comes from a news story that broke in early September this year.  Mammoths were a species of animal related to elephants that lived across Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. They had long, curved tusks, and some in the north had thick and long hair. They are more closely related to modern Asian elephants than African elephants. I’m not sure how else to describe mammoths, but I’m sure you can picture one in your mind!  The first mammoths were found around 5 million years ago, with most species going extinct over 10,000 years ago. However, one isolated group survived until 4000 years ago. Think about it – there were mammoths existing in the very north of Russia (a place known as Wrangel Island) at the same time as the Pyramids of Egypt were being built.

Despite mammoths being extinct for thousands of years, researchers announced in September that they had raised $15 million of funding for a project to bring the woolly mammoth back to life! Using modern technology to revive extinct species is known as “de-extinction.” The woolly mammoth is the most famous type of mammoth – known for its long hair! The scientists believe that by using cutting edge scientific technology, and a technique known as gene editing, they could potentially bring back the mammoth! 

How can they do this? First, they plan to make an elephant-mammoth hybrid. They hope to do this by taking cells from the Asian elephant, and then reprogramming them by adding some mammoth DNA. As the last living mammoths were found in the north of Russia, it means that we have been able to discover some of their remains. The cold temperature means that some of the ancient mammoth’s DNA has been preserved. By comparing the ancient DNA with modern elephants, scientists have been able to discover which genes are responsible for things like mammoth hair, extra fat, and other adaptations for the cold climate!

Once they make the elephant-mammoth DNA mix, they will use it to create an embryo which they will put inside a female elephant! If everything goes to plan, they hope to have their first mammoth/elephants in around 5 years time! Of course, I’ve made it sound simple – but it is really complicated! There is a lot of new technology and potential problems! The aim of the scientists is to create an elephant that behaves and looks like a mammoth. This is because the majority of DNA will be from elephants, not mammoths!

Why are scientists doing this? Is it just to recreate an extinct species? Well, according to the scientists, not necessarily. They also believe that it is a way to help Asian elephants survive in the future. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Asian elephants are an endangered species and their habitat is being threatened by climate change and other factors. The scientists believe that by adding Mammoth DNA to Asian elephants they will be able to survive in new areas! The other reason scientists suggest is that by introducing large herds of elephant-mammoths to the arctic tundra it might help to restore the environment. Mammoths used to be important animals in stopping forests from getting too big, as they knocked down trees and helped keep large grasslands! 

The woolly mammoth is not the only extinct animal scientists have thought about bringing back to life! Scientists from Harvard have an almost complete DNA from the bush moa, a flightless bird that went extinct 700 years ago. Others have talked about bringing back the Tasmanian tiger from Australia, passenger pigeons, and even another early group of humans called Neanderthals! But why should we do this? Why should scientists be researching “de-extinction”?

One suggestion is that trying to bring back extinct animals will improve our science! Every time scientists try to recreate an extinct species’ DNA they get better at doing it. They develop better methods, techniques, and equipment, and learn how to be more efficient and effective. These techniques could have future use in helping to preserve animals and even advance our understanding of our own DNA! Studying “deextinction” will help us develop the technology to save other endangered species. 

This is the second reason scientists often use – and one from the researchers trying to revive mammoths. Species of animals naturally evolve and become extinct due to many different factors. However, it is undeniable that humans have been particularly destructive. As we take up more space and resources, humans have destroyed habitats and put many species into danger. This is not even a modern thing. I remember reading an article about how almost all of Australia’s large animals went extinct very soon after humans arrived on the continent over 40,000 years ago! Some species are called keystone species. They are particularly important in maintaining a healthy environment – perhaps they spread seeds around an area, control animal numbers by hunting, or shape the environment. For example, the passenger pigeon helped to shape North America’s forests. After it went extinct, the forests lost one of their keystone species and have struggled ever since! Other species are threatened due to the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

A final argument for de-extinction is to preserve the planet. Some extinct animals played important roles in maintaining ecosystems and regulating climate change. I already mentioned this earlier as I talked about woolly mammoths. The woolly mammoth used to fertilize the grasslands of Siberia. They also stopped forests from spreading and kept the ground solid. Since they went extinct, the entire region of Siberia has become icy and lifeless. 

On the other hand, many scientists and observers are against the idea of de-extinction. Like me, you might be thinking of a Jurassic Park situation right now, but this is not the main reason scientists are against it! There are other risks and potential negative consequences. For example, reintroducing lost creatures could also reintroduce lost diseases and viruses. Our current ecosystem would be unprepared and vulnerable to ancient illnesses that could come back in the DNA of extinct animals. There could also be other disruptions in ecosystems. Over thousands of years, animals adapt to the gradual and slow changes to their environment. Suddenly introducing a new animal, even if that animal lived there many years ago, could have negative consequences and disrupt the balance. 

Moreover, some scientists say that de-extinction is not the best conservation method. It is an incredibly expensive and complicated procedure. We would need to edit DNA, raise populations, move them to the wild, and continue to monitor and maintain them for years. Who would pay for this? The only organisations with enough money, or desire, to do this are likely already paying for the conservation of existing animals! 

Finally, should we allow humans to play “god”? Bringing extinct animals back to life poses numerous moral and ethical problems. Do humans have the right to bring dead animals back to life? Animals often go extinct due their habitat being destroyed or their ecosystem being damaged. Is it ok to bring back an animal if their ecosystem no longer exists or has changed? Why would they be able to survive now, if they couldn’t survive hundreds or thousands of years ago? 

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English I tried to introduce some of the context and debate surrounding de-extinction. Should we bring extinct animals back to life? Some scientists, researchers, and business people are already making plans to do so, but should they? On the one hand, it has been argued that de-extinction could help protect the environment, preserve endangered animals, and improve science. On the other hand, it has also been argued that there are too many risks, it is not a good conservation practice, and there are numerous ethical and moral questions. 

What do you think? Should we bring back extinct animals? What extinct animals would you like to see come back? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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