Yet Another Idea for Using Biotechnology to Rescue Endangered Species

Posted by Pete Shanks September 8, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Scientists at Scripps have generated stem cells from the skin tissues of two species that are close to extinction: a northern white rhino and a drill, a west African monkey. As a result, some people are talking up the prospect of using these technologies to save endangered species. For example, Robert Lanza calls it "a very exciting development" and is willing to license his patented cloning technique freely for that purpose.

The science is published in Nature Methods but the optimism is premature and probably misguided. It's true that if the stem cells could be turned into germ cells, then this technique could theoretically help assisted breeding programs to diversify the gene pools of endangered species; but it hasn't happened yet, and in fact reprogramming has suffered setbacks recently. Even if gametes were created, the difficulties (and, for the animals, risks) involved in developing assisted reproduction techniques for new species are significant, as we've seen from the low success rates for cloning. And of course this does nothing to ameliorate the habitat threats that are the main reason for the current wave of extinctions.

Some experts are not impressed. William Holt, who works with the British Frozen Ark to store DNA from endangered animals, calls it "a bit of a stunt." Debra Mathews of Johns Hopkins comments, "It's a huge next step to get from iPSCs to functional gametes." George Daley allows that there could be value in studying tissues but politely suggests that the idea of using this for reproduction is "speculative" and "may or may not ever pan out."

But, hey, the paper got published in a prestigious journal, and the story was picked up by Scientific American, New Scientist, Nature News, and The Scientist, and thence to the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media, where there was widespread talk about a "stem cell rescue" or at least "hope" for endangered species.

Just wait, I thought cynically, someone is bound to link it to reviving the mammoth and/or Neandertals. Right on cue:

'Stemcell Zoo' Could Rescue Endangered Species, Even Revive Extinct Ones

Saving the tissues of endangered species is a sensible move. The published research on reprogramming skin cells is certainly worth doing, because we know far too little about this interesting process. Analyzing the DNA of extinct species is also potentially useful science. But the popular scientific journals should be gatekeepers, not sensationalists. Let's not get carried away.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: