Who likes sci-fi movies? Sci-fi movies about awesome technology, giant mutant creatures, characters with extraordinary powers? In the 21st century, one can hardly find a scenario that is more appealing to the general public than that of crazy scientists pushing too far the boundaries of science and suffering the dangerous outcomes of their messing up with nature. In the new Spiderman that cashed $750 million this summer, one can see how dangerous new scientific discoveries can be if they end up in the wrong hands. As a matter of fact, Spiderman’s story is not too far away from reality in the sense that technology is speedily developing to change how we think about the future with respect to other species.
In January 2012, the discovery by stem cell biologists Joanne Loring and Oliver Ryder published in Nature resembles the backstory of a sci-fi movie like Jurassic Park. The two main players, the northern white rhino Fatu and the drill monkey Loon, both face extinction in the next couple of decades.1 Loring aspired to obtain stem cells from these endangered species that could be used in the future to preserve their genetic diversity after they die out. The magic behind stem cell technology is the idea that stem cells can be reprogrammed to develop into any tissue in the body (also known as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or iPS cells), including gametes, which could be then used in vitro to fertilize an egg and reproduce a new individual. The main impediment to this rather challenging endeavor was obtaining stem cells from sources other than already fertilized embryos. Scientists at University of Kyoto broke the deadlock by discovering that human adult cells could be reprogrammed to return to their embryonic-like state by turning on a special set of genes. As noted in Nature, to Loring’s surprise, these human genes could also be used to reprogram animal cells to IPS, which eventually led to Loring and Ryder’s breakthrough in reprogramming Fatu’s cells and preserving them for the future generations in a so called Frozen Zoo. Fatu and Loon’s story is indeed revealing as to what stem cell technology can achieve and more importantly, what the motivation behind scientists’ research is.
However, unlike Spiderman where one can simply walk out of the movie theater and forget about the incredible mutations and ethical issues that the movie hints at, the issues that current stem cell research brings up cannot be overlooked. Even though technological advances may help save endangered species, the issues of stem cell research make it costly and controversial. Eco organizations and laws like the Endangered Species Act have an immense impact on daily life and the amount of resources put in environment-friendly programs. It is worth assessing the effect of humans on the environment, and whether it is within our powers to alter the course of evolution. After all, species come and go, and any meddling with these natural processes by resurrecting extinct animals in petri dish can be considered an even greater crime than the damage that already has been done by human activity. If one species is brought to life after being wiped out, the populations of other species could become endangered as a result. This could lead to a disturbance in the entire food chain and cause a mass extinction on the scale of that observed when dinosaurs died out in the beginning of the Mesozoic period. In addition, the adversaries to preservation programs point out that the official lists generated are rather ambiguous, as they generally list “large, spectacular, or high profile species”2 and neglect those that are not as “cute”3 and appealing to the general public. For instance, there are 200 endangered species Tasmanian Hydrobiid snails whose saving would hardly receive any attention because snails are considered not as interesting compared to some other species and people would not really care if they go extinct or not.2 The large amount of money raised and spent to save one species could be used more efficiently to prevent twenty others from becoming endangered in first place.3 Being aware of the facts that preserving the habitat and taking the measures to save species cost so much, we are left to decide about the future of stem cell technology that costs even more money and certainly does not guarantee success.
According to Loring, the biggest advantage of stem cell research is that it can be used to preserve the diversity of the animals even after they are eliminated from their natural habitat.1 However, developing technologies that will allow the reproduction of new embryos using these stem cells is also a very costly endeavor. Even in the scientific community, many are skeptical as to whether this stem cell frozen zoo project has any future at all. William Holt, a biologist at the Zoological Society of London and also involved with the project, has been dubious as to how the new discovery would be implemented in practice. He points out that it is not enough to have the cells reprogrammed, but also that the reproductive biology of the endangered species should be studied extensively before attempting any in-vitro reproduction. However, biologists know very little about an endangered species and having less than ten individuals as in the case of Fatu would decrease significantly the chances of success. Having this in mind, and knowing all the costs that come with the possible implementation of this project, we are left to decide how much we want to get involved in determining the future of other species. It is our responsibility to recognize that technology can improve living conditions of many endangered animals, but that it should be done in a way which would not cause a blunt disturbance in ecosystems. In the end, it comes to realizing that it is already too late to change today, but that we can always look for a better tomorrow, for us and for all those animals that carry the lethal sentence “endangered”.
- Ewen Callaway, “Could stem cells rescue an endangered species.” Nature(Sept 4,2011), Accessed Nov 19, 2012, doi:10.1038/news.2011.517.
- CheckBiotech(2002), “Scientist Bias Helping Cause Mass Extinction,” Accessed Nov 30,2012
- Jason,”Stem Cells Saving Endangered Species or Wasting Money,”TechNYou, Accessed Nov 19,2012, http://technyou.edu.au/2010/06/stem-cells-saving-endagered-species-or-wasting-money/.
- Image credit (Creative Commons): Waschefort,Hein.”White rhino and its young.”. In: Wkimedia Commons. Last modified August 18,2012 [cited 2012 December 3].
Maria Karapetkova is a junior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biomedical Engineering. Endangered species have always been an interest of hers, and she finds it fascinating that biomedical engineering technology cannot find solutions for this major issue. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.