Books

'The Re-Origin of Species': A test tube future for Earth's endangered animals

Torill Kornfeldt thought her trip to see one of the last northern white rhinos was an exercise in nostalgia. Instead it uncovered a potential future for many of the world’s endangered species

met Nola in the spring of 2015. Though rotund and rather cumbersome, her movements were dignified and majestic. She had no real worries in life; she loved apples and relished a back scratch.

People are fascinated by endings, boundaries, the last of a line. Maybe that explains why I felt so moved as I watched the monumental rhinoceros take a leisurely stroll. When I visited her at San Diego Zoo in southern California, there were only four northern white rhinos left in the world. When Nola passed away in November 2015, that left three, and after Sudan died, last male, died, there are now just two, Najin and Fatu, both female and both unable to bear calves. No more northern white rhinos will be born by natural means.

It is mainly poaching that has killed the northern white rhinoceros. Rhino horn commands as high a price on the black market as cocaine or gold. Some horns are used in alternative medicine; others are turned into the shafts of ornate knives or other decorative artefacts.

“Most people agree we have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren, and that maybe we aren’t responsible for the generations that may live tens of thousands of years in the future. But the decisions we take today will have consequences for that sort of length of time,” says Oliver Ryder in his office, a few hundred metres away from Nola. A researcher, he’s responsible for the zoo’s genetics department.

Six large containers hold tens of thousands of small test tubes full of cells, eggs, sperm, and a few embryos from about a thousand species of animals.

Oliver is not just talking about the fact that species are dying out at an alarming rate today and that the Earth’s biodiversity is steadily shrinking. He’s also talking about how the decisions we take could make the world better and help save species. Although the northern white rhino is already extinct in practice, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Here another quite different kind of zoo exists, packed in plastic tubes and immersed in liquid nitrogen. Six large containers hold tens of thousands of small test tubes full of cells, eggs, sperm, and a few embryos from about a thousand species of animals. When Oliver opens one of the containers, cold vapour from the liquid nitrogen wafts out, and he needs the thick purple rubber gloves he has on to protect his hands from injury. Slowly, he lifts out the receptacle containing cells from 12 northern white rhinos.

“Any attempt to revive an animal species must involve living cells. Many people are obsessed by genes. But you can’t create life from DNA alone,” says Oliver .

These cells represent the ability to recreate this lost species, either by cloning them and creating 12 new baby rhinos, or by using techniques yet to be developed that turn the cells into eggs and sperm. Researchers are right now developing better IVF techniques for rhinos. Any attempt would involve surrogate mothers of a closely related species. The cells will be ready to use when the science catches up and the problem with the poachers has been solved.

The northern white rhino is one of many examples of researchers and conservationists reaching for new tools to try to save endangered species. Genetic engineering may prove decisive, turning the tide and making a difference in the battle to conserve species. One possible application of the new technology that’s currently being developed is to support species that have gone through genetic bottlenecks, becoming highly inbred and vulnerable to genetic defects.

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The Re-Origin of Species by Torill Kornfeldt (translated by Fiona Graham) is out now (Scribe, £14.99)

A lab in New Orleans is developing ways of cloning endangered felines, starting with wildcats, and plans to branch out to other, larger species. Perhaps the genetic make-up of some museum specimens could be analysed and used to understand and enhance species living today. This wouldn’t produce enough individuals to start a new population, but it might lessen the risks facing endangered animals if they could benefit from an injection of new genetic material.

Other researchers are looking at using genetic technology to cure the fungal diseases that are threatening frogs and bats. In Australia, large vats of seawater house hundreds of tiny corals . Researchers there are trying to produce types that can survive climate change,  thus providing a way to save coral reefs.

Also, around the globe researchers are trying to bring back animals and plants that have already gone extinct, from aurochs and passenger pigeons all the way back to mammoths.

Of course, not everyone takes a positive view of such change. Both researchers and the public can be divided into two distinct groups. One argues that the situation today is so serious that we must take this kind of action to have any chance of saving some of the biodiversity we still have. The other is made up of those who say that any such change would mean abandoning the goal of conserving nature as it is; that nature modified by human beings would be something else entirely, representing an utterly different world. Moreover, they argue, there would be incredible risks if anything went wrong.

When I began writing about humanity’s attempts to revive species, I thought my book would focus on nostalgia and the yearning for a vanished world. I discovered that it has more to do with the future, with the present, in which we humans have made ourselves nature’s masters — and with scientists’ unbridled desire to discover the new.

Translated by Fiona Graham

Image: Nola The Rhino, AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

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