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Resurrection Biology Part 2: On Mammoth Steak and Coral Reefs.

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

It seems there is a larger conversation to be had about the notion of resurrection biology. A friend of mine and I had that conversation after I posted up my last blog post. I thought it was that fun that I would do a follow up post on my thoughts regarding two issues he raised in that conversation: resurrection biology for food production and ecological services.

Food Production

The whole reason for this section is this comment:

Another potential use of resurrection biology which I think most people would object to is farming; imagine mammoth farms, admittedly their natural behaviour wouldn’t be as great, their habitats altered, but considering how many farm animals have been altered and placed into habitats we have designed it does seem a viable option for extinct edible megafauna. – Washington Irving

I don’t think I need to tell you that the human population is growing, I hope it’s also self-evident that the population increase has sped up over time. To demonstrate, the time it took to go from 1 billion to 2 billion was 123 years (according to United States Census Bureau (USCB) data) while the time from 6 to 7 billion was 12 years (again, USCB data) and it’s estimated we’ll pass 8 billion by another 16 years (you guessed it, USCB data). This last one actually surprised me but it seems that we’re living in an age in which, due to an ageing population and an increased life expectancy for children and infants, the rate of growth is finally sloping off. All these extra people need a place to live and food to eat so, maybe if we resurrected extinct species they’ll provide the food we’ll need?

I would be inclined to think not and here’s why: First off, you have to actually make a population of organisms from scratch, which is no small task, take a look at conservation and reintroduction efforts across the globe and how much effort has been put into these programmes to see why this is difficult. Secondly, we would be producing food from an organism that, potentially, no human has eaten before so there would necessarily be testing required to see if this food is a healthy alternative to currently farmed species. This is closely related to another point, the fact that these foods would fall under the domain of Genetically Modified Food and here we open a hornet’s nest of political debate on the nature and safety of GM food which I’m not going to wade into here, except to say that it would make some people hesitant to buy into the new food source.

The example species Wash gave for the possibility of farming extinct species was farming Mammoth for steaks. Unfortunately, this is a terrible example for the potential of resurrected farm animals. Mammoth are close relatives of Elephants and as such we can say with a level of certainty that they would be long lived, slow to grow and, what is called k selected which essentially just means that they have relatively small numbers of children, perhaps one at a time which are then cared for by parents or members of a group; the opposite is r selection which is where many offspring are born all at once and are typically abandoned to fend for themselves.

Source: http://sprudge.com/saturday-sept-th-san-francisco-huge-block-party-with-coffee-bar-sf-and-scout-mob-plus-ribs.html

Unfortunately, this might not be feasible.

What this means is that it might take a decade to grow the initial population of mammoth to adulthood and then you’d need to leave many of them alive to produce the next population. Mammoths would also require huge tracks of land to maintain their population with tonnes and tonnes of grass every day. So there are quite a few problems I can see, my final problem is that the economic costs are really quite high given the genetic meddling needed, the set up of the population et c. but are there any cases which would be suitable for resurrection farming.

Now to raise a point I didn’t realise until I started typing up this post which is the fact that we don’t even need to resurrect extinct megafauna to farm, we could equally easily resurrect extinct plants, or fungi, or yeast or any living thing which we have records of their genetic material (Mesozoic organisms are apparently too old for this, sorry Jurassic Park). It’s possible we could develop an extinct species with higher yields than current farmed species, or with different nutritional benefits. It seems to me that the possibilities here are basically the same as with the genetically modified crops which we are already developing and that extinct species won’t really add anything to their potential.

There is one example that I’d mention for it’s possibilities, which is the Gros Michel, this is a banana variety which was used until the 1950’s when it was devastated by a fungal infection which spread extremely rapidly due to the low genetic diversity of the variety. Everyone switched to the Cavendish cultivar and now the only legacy left is the banana flavouring which is still the same as when it was developed to taste like the Gros Michel. The possibility of bringing back species or cultivars devastated by diseases gives hope to the extremely homogenous cultivars used today, because were they wiped out, it might be possible to resurrect them based on this technology.

Source: http://tangerinetravels.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/am-reading-banana-fate-of-fruit-that.html

Spot the difference.

Ecological services

The other half of our conversation was on the potential to help with problems caused by extinctions, such as the destruction of species which provide what are called ecological services. Ecological services are basically things which species naturally do, which benefit human society, the canonical example being bees pollinating flowers of crops but there are other, more subtle ecological benefits such as the protection forests provide against flooding.

So what if there are species which used to exist which was better at providing some ecological services than current ones, perhaps there is an extinct species of tree with roots particularly adept at drawing up the water during floods but does not dry out the soil too much when water isn’t quite so abundant. Conditions on this planet has varied so much that it’s entirely possible such species have existed.

The difficulty I see with this plan is that you first need to resurrect the species and then see how it would interact with an ecosystem before introducing it. This would mirror the process already used to determine if biological control agents introduced into new environments would potentially become invasive and harm the ecosystem more than it would help. So given the added cost of trying to create a viable population, nearly, from scratch you then have to make sure you’ve not resurrected a species which is going to oust other members of the ecosystem you intended to fix.

Source: http://www.bioimages.org.uk/html/p7/p71469.php

Imagine the Harlequin Ladybird was extinct and we thought we’d reintroduce it to control aphid populations.

The final point I think which would probably be raised first by others, again it is quite Jurassic Park: The species went extinct for a reason, maybe it should have stayed that way. While I don’t personally believe in a grand plan for evolution, I could modify this argument to the notion that the environmental changes which caused the species’ extinction in the first place could still be in effect and so the species would be doomed to extinction all over again. This would be my response to my friends comment:

I think it depends also how you would re-introduce extinct species, as some are able to readjust to natural settings after human interaction. I’m thinking more along the lines of coral reef communities where some species will go extinct and if these can be resurrected it’d be extremely useful, even if it is in potential new habitats due to warmer oceans… – Washington Irving

It’s possible we could reintroduce species such as those coral reefs which Washington mentions but the result could be another extinction all over again. Even if we got everything right, we cannot be sure that the species would provide the ecological services we want and that they would not be destroyed by some process, whether artificial or natural.

In the end, the only use I can see for resurrection biology is for the purpose of maintaining species which already exist as Washington says:

I’ve wondered at times how species could be integrated into existing areas, and the only result I see is that the competition negatively effects the previous community. […] I still think that resurrection biology would have a potential use primarily for helping current species with low populations and natural behaviours which are known be able to recover or even to try and mitigate losses from global warming and ocean acidification events. – Washington Irving

If we can maintain the species which are at risk today, that is the best outcome for resurrection biology. We aren’t here to fix the world, the world isn’t broken, the problem is that it may become just a little less interesting if we allow processes currently shaping our world to continue along their path.

Resurrection Biology and Behavioural Ecology

January 26, 2014 8 comments

To begin with, I think it would be best to ensure that you know what the hell resurrection biology and behavioural ecology mean before we move onto why this is interesting and important. So, resurrection biology is the notion that we can create a real-life Jurassic Park of extinct animals, or reintroduce extinct animals to an ecosystem by reconstructing their genetic code and then incubating the resulting egg in a related organism. Behavioural ecology is the study of what animals do and why they do it, instead of asking ‘does an animal have horns?’ it asks ‘what do the horns do?’ and this question may have different answers for different organisms, for some it might be defence against predators while for others it might purely be to display the health and vitality of the animal.

Now, why are these two fields important to each other? Well, it has been suggested that we might be able to reintroduce, for example, dodos, woolly mammoths or thylacines (Tasmanian Wolves) to their old ranges. It comes up in the news every now and then and every time it is, they rarely discuss the ecological implications of such a reintroduction could cause, at least that is my faint impression from the back of my hermit’s cave.

Source: http://forum.phish.net/thread.php?thread=1375181970

Imagine these guys roaming across Russia, Northern Europe and Canada.

First off, let’s talk reintroductions of endangered species. Endangered species are notorious for causing problems for people trying to help them survive. The image of giant pandas stubbornly refusing to mate comes to mind. A study by Jule, Leaver and Lea entitled “The Effects of Captive Experience on Reintroduction Survival in Carnivores: A Review and Analysis” found

the results of the ANOVA show that wild-caught carnivores survived significantly more (53%) than captive-born carnivores (32%), F(1,4.66) = 17.697, p = 0.01.

For the uninitiated, this means that animals caught from the wild and introduced to an area where they had been wiped out were nearly twice as likely to survive as those born in the zoo. Now, this is a very good example study to illustrate my point, which is raised probably more eloquently in the paper, that the behavioural ecological differences such as confidence near humans, feeding behaviours et c. (Though it is very important to point out that the paper did not look into these differences, doubtless due to the lack of data available on this matter) can potentially have a major impact on the survivability of an animal being reintroduced into habitat. And these are animals which are still alive and so have parental guides to how they should act!

Imagine a dodo, now imagine all the things it does in a lifetime, are you sure your imagination is entirely accurate? This is the behavioural ecological problem for resurrection biology: we don’t know how to create the environment which a dodo would develop in so would we actually make a dodo? This point is pretty Jurassic Park, I cannot find the quote online but I believe Dr Alan Grant, in Jurassic Park 3, says something to the effect of “the genetic creations of InGen are not dinosaurs, the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago” and while this is not entirely accurate, many dinosaurs continue to thrive today, it’s just that they are covered in feathers and restricted to the dinosaurian group Aves, the birds.

Source: http://aliceinwonderland.wikia.com/wiki/The_Dodo

Ok, so maybe they didn’t smoke pipes and wear waistcoats and wigs, but we cannot be sure of other, less stupid, behaviours that the dodo may have performed.

Getting back on the point, behavioural plasticity within a species is quite high, especially in birds and mammals. I would provide definitive evidence for this point but I don’t know that a study exists which has looked at the plasticity of development in large groups of animals and found this. It’s more of a theoretical argument which, while not as good as a study, is a starting point. Feel free to complain to me that my hypothesis is inaccurate because X, Y, Z. So my reasoning for increased behavioural plasticity in mammals and birds is the fact that there are many and varied studies on many different species of bird and mammal which showed their ability to learn and adapt their behaviours according to the requirements of their environment. The reasoning for the behavioural plasticity of all animals is that it seems far more likely that every species will have at least one epigenetic process involved in their development and thus plasticity in final form. I hope this reasoning is strong enough to stand on its own until some concrete evidence is found to swing the facts one way or the other*.

To move on, the ecosystem which an extinct animal used to be a part of may not exist any more, many species that have been pushed to extinction by humans, went extinct because of habitat loss. Here I would say that the link is difficult to establish so once again, this is me armchair ecologising (Totally a word). But it is reasonable given what Brooks et al. point out about biodiviersity hotspots in their abstract:

Nearly half the world’s vascular plants and one-third of terrestrial vertebrates are endemic to 25 “hotspots” of biodiversity, each of which has at least 1500 endemic plant species. None of these hotspots have more than one-third of their pristine habitat remaining. Historically, they covered 12% of the land’s surface, but today their intact habitat covers only 1.4% of the land.

To understand this, endemic means ‘only found there’ so, for example, kangaroos are endemic to Australia. Biodiversity is a measure of how many different types of organism are in a particular place, so a rainforest is more diverse than an ice floe. Look at it this way, hotspots of biodiversity are like cities full of different people and if we destroy a city, we kill many more unique individuals than if we destroyed a farming community. Even before we made the mass migration into cities during the Industrial Revolution, even though most people would live in a farming community, because they are so diffuse, less people would die if the same area of farmland were destroyed compared to a city.

So the lack of good habitat would make reviving a species a mute point, not to mention that the lack of habitat might mean that symbioses, predator-prey relations, parasite-host interactions and so on that were present in the animals’ original ecosystem that the animal would not survive in an equivalent ecosystem, such as moving an Orangutan into the Amazon.

To conclude, I would point out that my career in behavioural ecology is probably not even in its infancy, it’s gestating still, and these are the problems I could rattle off. Perhaps given a more skilled or experienced mind, a brighter mind, there are even more issues which could arise for the field of resurrection biology from behavioural ecology.

I hope this hasn’t been too boring for my first post of 2014 and that it gives someone, somewhere a few fun and interesting things to think about, if it has, let me know, if it hasn’t, let me know, feedback is how I can make this blog something worth reading.

*Just a note to say that my suggestion in this paragraph is exactly that, it is a suggestion, it is not a theory, theories require evidence and testing and a whole bunch people doing their utmost to tear it down, and then failing. Theoretical does not mean theory, it means that based on my understanding of how the system works, this may be true; theoretical work is based on theories and experimental work is based on theoretical work.

What is science?

February 24, 2012 2 comments

Take a minute and ask yourself that question, get a pen and paper and try to write a succinct and accurate answer… Harder than it looks isn’t it? It helps to try to define science within specific guidelines for example:

– As a belief system (including comparing it to other belief systems)

– As a way of knowing (including comparing it to other ways of knowing)

– Science and Technology

– Philosophy of Science

– The Scientific Method

Now first of all what I have to say is by no means the be all and end all of science, I don’t think I’d ever have the conviction to claim to be an authority on anything I’ve studied, regardless of how long I could spend studying it.  Given the complex nature of this topic, I’m going to separate out these topics into separate posts that I will hopefully complete over the coming months.

This week, science as a belief system.

What can we truly say about the world around us? René Descartes famously stated “Cogito ergo sum”, the only real thing we can say is that our thoughts and feelings are real, that because we think, we must exist. But of course that’s not very helpful and not very practical, so humans have invented belief systems as ways of understanding our world, they may be based on a creed or dogma like religion, or they may be variants of various philosophies as defined those that dedicated their lives to thought.

Science as a belief system says that we can make certain statements about the world which we perceive. For example, the fact that it is built on rules and these rules do not change. If something seems to defy our rules then our rules are not accurate when compared to how the world actually is (or if you prefer our thoughts, theories and hypotheses do not fully explain what we perceive to be true). This is the basis of the Scientific method but I’m getting ahead of myself there. Science attempts to state and explain everything there is in the natural world, scientists seek to understand all the phenomena (Phenomenon (Singular): A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen).

So science states that if something is tested over and over and there is a consistent result, then that is probably true, so if I jump up over and over, I’m going to fall back down and land (hopefully upright) again, this is true.

But why do things happen? Well that’s where we can bring in Occam’s Razor, that is, the simplest answer is often the right one, if there is a simple testable explanation, and it has been tested and evidence hasn’t contradicted it, then that is probably right. If something is a more complicated answer then it is probably wrong. This of course is secondary to the evidence. If two, as they are called hypotheses, have not been falsified, then the simpler one is probably the right one.

So what does science say about other belief systems? Well first off nothing in science says that you have to put to death anyone who doesn’t believe in science which in my mind immediately puts it above older more intolerant belief systems (if you get what I’m hinting at). Science makes no statements about other belief systems saving where those belief systems make statements about the observable universe. If a belief system makes a statement that is illogical then because science is based on logic it would reject that too.

Note that only where things contradict reason or have been shown to be not true is science at odds with alternative belief systems, believing science does not necessarily contradict a belief in any other belief system, religion or otherwise, it would be wise to have another belief system, for example a system of ethics and morals. While I am not religious, I don’t see any point in picking a fight with religion mainly because I see it as a futile ‘war’ on an extremely pervasive and ‘sticky’ ideology.

There is another branch of academic study that has not been discussed and that is the humanities. I know from personal experience that many believe and have believed myself for a time that Science was the greatest thing and anyone doing anything else were ignorant scum, harsh words. Where does this idea come from that makes science think it’s so much better than the arts?

Well a greater mind and speaker covered this concept in his wonderful book, “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox” by the late Stephen Jay Gould published posthumously, this book looked at the ‘knowledge wars’ since the birth of modern science, he suggested that science, along with others follows the hedgehog in it’s style, having one very good way of doing things, this is good, but it restricts us in our ways of looking at the world so while it is important for scientists to be a hedgehog, humanity should be like the fox, using each different method for each different problem, science has no way of determining morals and so we should use a different method of ‘knowing’ something in order to decide morals.

This idea that we should see the different groups, not at war with each other, but complimenting each other, he called this idea consilience, I would highly recommend reading his book and deciding for yourself I may not have summarised his points as well as I could have. But the point of all this is that science is very good at what it does, the best in fact, but it cannot step beyond it’s bounds we have to find alternatives which are the most practical and useful. Where science cannot tread, we have to use a different vehicle for understanding.