Dinosaur thinking is no match for gene geniuses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am

When Edinburgh scientists announced the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep more than a decade ago, people around the world were amazed and concerned. They knew, instinctively, that something morally problematic had just happened. Something similar happened again in the world of genetic research last week.

Scientists from Australia and the United States said they had successfully 'resurrected' a gene from the extinct Tasmanian tiger and inserted it into a mouse fetus. The gene, apparently, performs a function in developing the fetus' cartilage. An eerie-looking X-ray photo of the mouse fetus shows the cartilage developing into bones. Inserting the gene of one living species into another is nothing new. A gene from fireflies, for example, has been inserted into tomatoes to make them glow and look more attractive to consumers. Many food products today contain genetically modified ingredients that underwent transgenic procedures.

However, this is the first time the DNA of an extinct species has been implanted into a living species. This immediately raises the prospect of resurrecting extinct species, a scenario that was explored in Michael Crichton's best-seller Jurassic Park and subsequently turned into a Hollywood blockbuster by Steven Spielberg. It raises all kinds of ethical questions. Should we second-guess nature when it has already made the ultimate decision on the fate of species? And if we do proceed to reproduce extinct animals, can we justify recreating their living environments, which will be necessary to enable them to live again? How will these past ecologies interfere with our current environment?

Luckily, we are still some way from being technically proficient enough to realise the Jurassic Park scenario, even though it is theoretically possible. The scientists involved in the Tasmanian tiger project have enough trouble monitoring and understanding the actions of a single gene. Most animals have more than 30,000 genes. Most of these are not so simple as to perform a single function. Many have multiple functions; others work in groups. Their permutations and combinations are, therefore, staggering. But this is only a question of technical capability. Technology advances by leaps and bounds. There is no question we will get there sometime, perhaps soon. It is time society as a whole starts thinking through these questions seriously. We need the wisdom to match the advance of scientific knowledge.