On Cloning Extinct Animals

June 16th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Are we ready for scientists to clone a real-life Jurassic Park?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The book is a classic.

The movie was a blockbuster.

But are we ready for scientists to clone a real-life Jurassic Park?

Significant genomic accomplishments in the past year have increased the possibility of bringing back to life two extinct creatures: woolly mammoths and Neanderthals.

“I laughed when Steven Spielberg said that cloning extinct animals was inevitable,” said an expert on ancient DNA who consulted on Jurassic Park. “But I’m not laughing anymore, at least about mammoths. This is going to happen. It’s just a matter of working out the details.”

The genetic details of the woolly mammoth—yielded from carcasses buried in the Siberian permafrost—have been painstakingly decoded by scientists who have now unlocked 70% of the animal’s genome, including much of the data needed to clone one.

The genome of the Neanderthal—driven to extinction 30,000 years ago--has been completely reconstructed. According to a leading genome researcher at Harvard Medical School, a Neanderthal could be brought to life using current technology for about $30 million.

But questions of ethics and responsibility nag at the nucleus of changing science fiction to non-fiction.

If we cloned our relatives the Neanderthals, asked one expert, “Are you going to put them in Harvard or in a zoo?” And woolly mammoths, notes a paleontologist, were highly social animals. “Cloning would give you a single animal, which would live all alone in a park, a zoo, or a lab—not in its native habitat, which no longer exists. You’re basically creating a curio.”

A science writer asked his readers, “Should we try to resurrect a Neanderthal? And if so, what kind of precautions should we take, and what kind of lives should we help them lead?” Many respondents expressed concern about a cloned Neanderthal’s quality of life. “What kind of life is that?” asked one, to be “raised from birth with the knowledge that they exist solely for the sake of a scientific experiment.”

“They’d have more important lessons to teach us than what we’d have to teach them,” wrote another, worried that our egos “would not see the wisdom in a species who are perhaps uglier, slower, and clumsier than us…They’d be miserable. Leave ‘em be.”

“How about making another Einstein or Bach or Rembrandt?” suggested another. “Wouldn’t that be more challenging and more scientifically useful?”

Tell us what you think: Is cloning an extinct animal responsible?