There may be hope in saving animals in danger of going extinct: cloning.
Sir Ian Wilmut, whose team gave life to Dolly the Sheep, suggests a biological bank that contains egg and sperm cells and also tissues of various animals could "revolutionize" conservation efforts.
"The absolute minimum we should do," Wilmut says, "is preserve tissues from these animals in such a way that they can be thawed and grown again."
Animal Biobank: A Modern-Day Noah's Ark
The biobank Wilmut envisions may be the planet's only defense against the threat of extinction and the loss of biodiversity. It could serve as a modern-day "Noah's ark."
Theoretically, the preservation of cells and other genetic material from endangered animals might help ensure that the species live on.
Embryos could be made by thawing and fertilizing the eggs with the sperm from the extinct species, but gestation might have to be carried out via a surrogate mother from a different, remnant species.
How To Save A Dying Species: Genetic Engineering
In vitro fertilization might not be the only route that scientists can take. Another method is to examine the differences in the genome of an extinct or endangered species against the genetic data of a thriving one.
The next step, once the genomes have been mapped, is to genetically "engineer" part of the thriving species so that they carry the genetic information of the extinct or endangered animals.
Introducing incremental changes to DNA across several generations could slowly turn a remnant species into a replacement for the lost or dying species, increasing their number and reversing their path to extinction altogether.
Stem cell research has paved the way for so-called pluripotent cells to be reprogrammed into any cell or tissue vital to engineering species in the lab — whether to resurrect a dead species, rid a species of a disease or enhance a species' good traits.
Dolly The Sheep And The Success Of Animal Cloning
Wilmut believes that stem cell research would have been 20 years behind had it not been for the successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep, the very first mammal cloned from an adult cell.
But the scientist is also quick to point out that such success may have been random since, out of more than 270 attempts, Dolly was the only lamb that lived. She was created from a mammary cell of an adult Finn Dorset sheep.
The researchers at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, where Wilmut advanced cloning, removed the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell and replaced it with the nucleus of the mammary cell. The egg cell divided and developed into an embryo by use of electrical shock. It was then implanted into the uterus of a surrogate.
Dolly the Sheep turned out as a clone of the sheep from which the mammary cell had been taken. In 2003, the clone developed a lung disease and had to be euthanized. July 5 marks two decades since her birth.