In the deep freeze at the San Diego Zoo, genetic material from a small, nondescript Hawaiian bird waits for a day – sometime very soon – when science will use it to improve biodiversity.

What’s the catch? The honeycreeper, called the po’ouli, is thought to be extinct and scientists will have to use cloning techniques to bring the entire species back from the dead.

Welcome to the bleeding edge of biogenetics and the science of de-extinction.With an estimated 10,000-100,000 species going extinct per year and more bad news coming, conservation biologists are working on ways to bring back those we’ve lost and learn more about preserving those that are just hanging on.

Scientists say they are achingly close to successful de-extinction but conservationists are divided. Some say the “wow factor” will draw money away from conservation methods like habitat preservation and restoration; and others say our efforts may displace or endanger other species. Let’s look at the cases for and against.

A beautiful case study from an ugly frog

Australian professor Mike Archer and his team have created an embryo from the tissue of a frog that had gone extinct 30 years ago. The technique they used was somatic-cell nuclear transfer, used in animal cloning, and involves implanting the nucleus from the extinct species into a living cell from a related species.

Professor Archer’s team used tissue from a frozen frog carcass and created an egg that was entirely DNA from the extinct species. Though the embryo died, it was still a breakthrough and an indication that science will soon be able to resurrect species from dead cells.

“I’m optimistic … I’d like to say that within the next couple of years, we would have this guy hopping back again,” Professor Archer told ABC radio.

This ugly little frog is the poster child of the de-extinction movement for two reasons: It went extinct recently, so its habitat is likely to be repairable and its DNA is in good condition; plus the species itself is one of a kind.

The gastric brooding frog was reclusive and found only in two patches of forest in Queensland, and is one of only two frogs in the world that bred its young in its stomach.

Yeah, you read that right – the frog can turn its stomach into a uterus to incubate the eggs and then spit them out when they’re ready. Weird science, indeed. It was the last of its family, and only discovered a decade before it went extinct in the 1980s.

“The first people that saw that were aghast. By the time anybody got excited about it, suddenly it was extinct,” Professor Archer said in a TED Talk.

“So that’s certainly one of the driving reasons why this would be a focal animal for seeing if we can de-extinct this amazing frog.”

In the same TED series, environmentalist and thinker Stewart Brand went further, to say we have a moral obligation to bring species back to life.

“Humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. We have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage.”

“Most of that, we will do by expanding and protecting wild lands … and endangered species. But some species that we killed off total, we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.”

De-extinction an expensive distraction

The Scientific American says the de-extinction movement was dangerous because it diverts attention from a biodiversity crisis we don’t have the funds and energy to face as it is.

“A program to restore extinct species poses a risk of selling the public on a false promise that technology alone can solve our ongoing environmental woes – an implicit assurance that if a species goes away, we can snap our fingers and bring it back,” it wrote in an editorial.

American Museum of Natural History curator Ross D E MacPhee is worried current species would be displaced or even wiped out, should extinct species be brought back. What’s more, how will the revived species know how to live without communities of their kin to show them where and how to feed, how to construct social structures, how to mate?

“There are some people who argue that this is exactly what conservation biology needs: It needs to stop being a nostalgia trip,” he told a gathering at the museum.

“If you could bring back mammoths, would that not mean that there would be abundant and new interest in conserving what we have? The counter to this is that just bringing back a few mammoths … is not about conservation at all but a further example of human manipulation of the biosphere – which we haven’t been very good at, have we?

“We know so much now that we are able to play God but still don’t have the omniscience thereof.”

Would you like to see mammoths revived, or are the risks too great? Share your perspective in the comments.

More resources:

National Geographic has a whole section on de-extinction.

Here’s an interesting discussion on NPR about the merits and concerns. 

Adam Welz addresses the expensive distraction argument for The Guardian