De-extinction!

De-extinction

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the Earth BioGenome project in which I suggest that the idea of the project collecting and sequencing all of life was aimed at working towards being able to ‘de-extinct’ species that may be lost in the coming years.

Well this week the Guardian UK newspaper has run an article specifically about de-extinction, leading with the title Firm Raises $15m to Bring Back Woolly Mammoth from Extinction.

Now headlines don’t tell the whole story as we know, and what the article appears to be saying is that scientists (and I will come back to who) want to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA. The plan is to begin by taking skin cells from Asian elephants and reprogram them into more versatile stem cells that carry mammoth DNA.

This could lead to the hybrids having long hair, larger fat depositis and other characteristics that would allow the animals to live in cold environments, rather like a mammoth.

The article has a subtitle though that makes for even more interesting reading: Reintroducing large animals can help restore ecosystems.

This is actually a link to an article that talks about the introduction of wolves and other non-extinct species into environments that suit their lifestyles, although the scientists proposing to do this with mammoths argue that their introduction may help to restore the degraded arctic tundra habitat and help in fighting global warming.

As we might imagine however none of the above comes without criticism, with other scientists arguing that these environmental claims might be baseless and the problems of producing such a hybrid aminal should not be underestimated (in technological terms).

George Church

Now to come back to the scientists. The money has been raised by bioscience and genetics company Colossal, co-founded by Ben Lamm, a tech and software entrepreneur, and George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has pioneered new approaches to gene editing. I don’t know much about Lamm, but George Church is a very interesting character. He has been at the forefront of all types of genetic research for many decades, raising plenty of controversy along the way.

He is a pioneer who has pushed scientific boundaries, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and sharing lunch back in 2012. I have to admit I was a bit frightened though. What do you say in such presence? There doesn’t appear to be any box to think out of for him!

This seems like an incredible project to me, to the point that I don’t know what to think. I grew up in the era of the Jurassic park films! Will I one day look out to see a pterodactyl fly past?

The Earth BioGenome Project (and Some Questions it Raises)

This week I want to take a look at the Earth Biogenome Project, and pass on some comments that I heard at a recent conference.

The Earth Biogenome Project aims to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth in the coming ten years in order to benefit human welfare, protect biodiversity and help in understanding ecosystems.

The following comes from the project press release from its launch:

An international consortium of scientists is proposing what is arguably the most ambitious project in the history of biology: sequencing the DNA of all known eukaryotic species on Earth. 

The benefits of the monumental initiative promise to be a complete transformation of the scientific understanding of life on Earth and a vital new resource for global innovations in medicine, agriculture, conservation, technology and genomics.

The central goal of the Earth BioGenome Project is to understand the evolution and organization of life on our planet by sequencing and functionally annotating the genomes of 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes, a massive group that includes plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus that houses their chromosomal DNA. To date, the genomes of less than 0.2 percent of eukaryotic species have been sequenced. 

The project also seeks to reveal some of the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, most of which are single cell organisms, insects and small animals in the oceans. The genomic data will be a freely available resource for scientific discovery and the resulting benefits shared with countries and indigenous communities where biodiversity is sourced. Researchers estimate the proposed initiative will take 10 years and cost approximately $4.7 billion.  

What and Undertaking! And what promise!

As regular readers will know, my interest in technology is focused on ethics, and such a project raises a few questions that I would like to leave you with (as raised by Tess Doezema in her recent presentation at the European Biotechnology in Society Seminar.

  1. Ethical guidelines and frameworks for research into humans are generally based on the idea of informed consent: the researcher informs the participants about the implications of the research and the participants accept the possible outcomes. This model is difficult to apply however to other natural objects (such as animals). What should guidelines look like?
  2. The aim of the project seems to be preserving species. The website shows lots of statistics related to how many types of animal have become and will become extinct in the near future, leading me to conclude that de-extinction plays a role in the project. But that is problematic in itself. It raises the question of whether conservation practices will be improved or lessened, after all if we can bring an extinct animal back to life maybe we will not work as hard to save it!
  3. What are the implications for creating a global market for the DNA of all living things?

I look forward to comments and suggestions.

A Look at the Green Labs NL Project

Last week I raised a few questions about the kind of futures are envisaged for the planet from a rather argumentative standpoint: what will the political implication be if we take the technological fix approach to defending the climate?

Today I want to cast some light on a project that is asking another related question: what are the environmental consequences of actually carrying out scientific research?

This question moves beyond the idea that science and technological development might be able to help in reaching predetermined environmental standards (think about the Paris accord) or aims (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as it questions the research practices that might lead to this.

How can scientists make their research greener?

A small group of scientists in the Netherlands aim to investigate this question. They call themselves Green Labs NL.

From the website:

Green labs NL was started in 2021 by a few members of the Dutch Scientific Community who realized they shared a passion for making their science more sustainable.

The group aim to build a wider community in The Netherlands to help encourage individual scientists, lab groups and whole institutes to go greener when it comes to how we use our lab spaces, and the way we do science. The platform can aid by sharing resources and information, but also by bringing other like-minded scientists together.

It is run by scientists, and is fully non-profit. There is no CEO, CSO, … It is kept alive by the scientific community! 

This small team of scientists (4 people) have launched a really interesting blog and just held their first online Green Labs NL network meeting (in English).  The website also hosts a forum and a useful links section, one of which leads to Harvard University’s Green Labs website, so they are not alone in this movement.

This is an exciting development and I will certainly follow their work, and hope that some of our Technology Bloggers readers might do the same.