In the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the world of creativity is undergoing a seismic shift. Chatbots, like Chat GPT, are composing poetry, generating paintings, and crafting stories, raising questions about the essence of creativity. Amid this technological evolution, an intriguing phenomenon emerges: de-extinction. This article embarks on a journey to explore the depths of de-extinction, delving into the motivations, methods, and controversies surrounding the resurrection of lost species.
The Nature of Creativity
Creativity, once deemed an exclusive human privilege, is now being redefined in the context of AI. Traditionally associated with sensitivity, talent, and an innate urge to create, the boundaries of creativity are expanding with the involvement of machines. The debate on the natural order of creativity has just begun, challenging the once-established belief in the uniqueness of human ingenuity.
Procreation vs. Creativity
While procreation is a universal instinct ingrained in all living species, creativity has historically been a rare gift bestowed upon a select few. Visionaries like Valmiki, Kalidas, Newton, Einstein, Shakespeare, and Leonardo de Vinci emerged once in centuries, leaving an indelible mark on human history. The emergence of AI and its creative capabilities intensifies the ongoing debate about the natural order of creativity, prompting us to explore uncharted territories.
The Rise of De-Extinction
At the intersection of science, technology, and human enterprise lies the concept of de-extinction. This audacious endeavour aims to resurrect extinct species or their close variants through genetic engineering, cloning, and advanced reproductive technologies. The urge to re-create what has been lost in the evolutionary journey propels the field of de-extinction into uncharted waters.
Animal De-Extinction: Progress and Challenges
The woolly mammoth, once an iconic Ice Age creature, is a focal point of de-extinction efforts. By combining DNA from well-preserved mammoth specimens with genes from its closest living relative, the Asian elephant, scientists strive to create a hybrid creature reminiscent of the extinct mammoth. Similarly, efforts to de-extinct the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger showcase the progress and challenges in the field.
The Northern White Rhino, with only two individuals left in the world, faces functional extinction. Advanced reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers, are employed with the aim of preserving the genetic diversity of the species. The Paso Fino Horse, though not fully extinct, witnesses a significant population decline, prompting genetic research and breeding programs to revive its original traits.Specimens of an extinct Mangarevan chaff flower (left) from French Polynesia and an extinct Degener’s peperomia (right) from Hawaii. NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN
Plant De-Extinction: A Growing Frontier
The extinction of nearly 600 plant species in the past 250 years highlights the urgency of plant de-extinction efforts. While lagging behind animal de-extinction, recent breakthroughs in the field showcase the potential to revive long-lost plant species. Examples include the successful regeneration of Silene stenophylla (Siberian St. John's Wort) from 30,000-year-old fruits found in Siberian permafrost.
In North America, efforts to restore the Californian Seaside Daisy using preserved seeds demonstrate the viability of using seed banks to resurrect extinct plant species. The jewel orchid (Anoectochilus roxburghii) in Taiwan and the Franklinia alatamaha, a flowering tree species, have also experienced successful revivals, emphasizing the diverse methods available for plant de-extinction.
A branch of Blutaparon rigidum, collected on a 1905-1906 expedition to the Galapagos Islands, contains hundreds of potentially viable seeds. New York Botanical Gardens
Herbaria: Guardians of Lost Lives
Herbaria, the hidden treasure troves of botanical history, stand as sanctuaries where the whispers of Earth's plant life echo through the ages.In January 1769, as botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sailed with Captain Cook on the HMD Endeavour, they embarked on a perilous journey that would add a daisy from Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, to the annals of botanical history. Dried and pressed for future study, this plant, later named Chiliotrichum amelloides, now stands among the almost 8 million preserved plants in New York Botanical Garden’s William & Lynda Steers Herbarium.
Over nearly five centuries, these botanical libraries have assisted botanists in unraveling the tapestry of floral diversity, providing a glimpse into the intrepid efforts of collectors who braved the unknown to document plant species. Now, these repositories are taking center stage in the ambitious quest to resurrect long-lost species, weaving a new chapter in the 500-million-year history of terrestrial plant life.
Since the 18th century, herbaria have assisted botanists in identifying, naming, and classifying the world's floral diversity. Now, these botanical libraries are at the forefront of a ground-breaking chapter in Earth's plant life history.
However, these botanical treasure troves, such as the New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium, encapsulate only around 30% of the world's plant species collections. The remaining 70% are scattered across the globe, residing even in small remote places. Despite their importance, herbaria remain an underappreciated resource. With advancements in bioinformatics, digitization, and in vitro embryo rescue techniques, herbaria are becoming invaluable tools in the quest for de-extinction. In the words of McKenna Santiago Coyle, who showcased 16 extinct plants in an online gallery on the NYBG herbarium website, these specimens “are remarkable glimpses into the past, capturing a moment before something tragic happened.”
(To be Continued…)
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)