The technology needed to clone animals has been around for nearly 30 years now, but a number of roadblocks have prevented it from becoming a widespread practice. One issue is ethical: many people fear what unchecked advancement in cloning technology could mean for the concept of the “self,” for the sanctity of life and for humanity’s role as caretakers of the planet we live on.
Other issues have been more logistical: what purpose is there to cloning animals? One answer to that question comes from a new process used in an American lab setting that brought back a black-footed ferret subspecies that was previously extinct. The ferret in question was born in December of 2020 in a lab in Colorado, and was cloned from the frozen genetics of a ferret who died in 1988.
“Advanced reproductive technologies, including cloning, can save species by allowing us to restore genetic diversity that would have otherwise been lost to time,” insists Ryan Phelan, the executive director of an initiative called Revive and Restore. While Phelan and his colleagues are sold on the idea of using cloning to combat endangerment and extinction, some critics have raised concerns with the process.
For one thing, the process of cloning is experimental and expensive. One critic, Professor William Holt, states that the concept is flawed because the individuals created by cloning programs tend to have health issues. “The only benefit is to produce one or possibly two individuals from a large amount of effort,” Professor Holt states. “And very often those individuals have got some kind of clinical problem. That isn’t really making a big contribution towards conservation and saving the whole species.”
Bringing biodiversity back to an endangered species is one thing, but what about extinct species? One team at Harvard is working on creating a clone hybrid of the extinct wooly mammoth and the African elephant, its closest living relative. Due to the small number of preserved individuals, the wooly mammoth likely couldn’t be cloned back into existence without the help of some genetic material from a similar animal.
Revive and Restore hopes that such a scenario could even bring back the mammoth steppes to far northern climates, using their natural abilities to restore a type of arctic grassland that was once common in the frozen north. Of course, such an initiative faces some issues: firstly, it would be very expensive. Secondly, a new species of hybrid mammoths would need a large number of individuals to not quickly become very inbred.
However, such a thing is technically possible. In a sense, science could defy even the grave.