Sunday, February 26, 2012

Redefining Extinction

I noticed a news item this week about the seeds from a plant that were preserved in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years and were rescued by Russian scientists, defrosted, cultivated in a laboratory, and grew into the plant and flowered. The plant is called Silene stenophylla. A contemporary version of the plant (said to be very similar to the 30,000-year-old version) still grows in Russia. The revived Silene stenophylla made viable seeds. It is the oldest plant ever to be regenerated and the find proves that the permafrost is a repository for viable life forms (frozen in suspended animation for thousands of years and capable of being revived). The Russian scientists who found the seeds and grew the plants are continuing to search in the permafrost for other viable tissues and seeds. The scientists are searching for tissues that would allow them to regenerate Ice Age mammals. One of the scientists stated, “This path could lead us all the way to mammoth.” I assume this means they are hoping to find viable frozen tissue from a wooly mammoth so they can bring those back from extinction too.

Whoa. My mind is racing. This means that perhaps no creature can be completely extinct because it might be able to come back. This means that DNA or tissues from the wooly mammoth could be found and a wooly mammoth could be grown in a lab. Although I have to wonder why we would want to bring back a wooly mammoth. I imagine a mammoth blinking in confusion in the bright lights of a contemporary lab, far from the prehistoric forests it once walked.

The ecosystem is such a delicate balance. I wonder if the reintroduction of a lost plant or animal could throw everything out of whack. I’m thinking of, for instance, the massive problem created in Clear Lake in Lake County, California, by the introduction of hydrilla, a type of seaweed. People dumped their home aquariums in the lake and established hydrilla, which then overtook the lake because nothing in Clear Lake eats hydrilla. So what if scientists bring back a plant from the Ice Age and they are innocent of the role this plant plays in the ecosystem and it turns out that it spreads like plague and hosts bacteria that kills fruit trees or something? The American chestnut trees were wiped out by a fungus brought over from Europe on the ships that carried pioneering settlers. (The chestnuts are not entirely extinct, but it doesn’t look like they are making a comeback any time soon.) Ya think we could be overrun by wooly mammoths gone amuck? Gives me pause.

While I am intrigued by the concept that something we thought was gone forever can return, I must also proceed with a sort of reserved wonder as I wait to discover the ramifications of the reintroduction of long-lost species.

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