A new area of bioinformatics has come to the rescue and relief of researchers while pursuing the ideal candidates for de-extinction.
Bioinformatics: Guiding the Resurrection.In recent decades, the rise of bioinformatics has transformed herbarium specimens into browsable digital databases, accessible to researchers worldwide. The New York Botanical Garden and other institutions have digitized their collections, providing a wealth of information on extinct plants. Bioinformatics, coupled with advances in in vitro embryo rescue techniques, enhances the odds of dormant embryos growing into viable plants. Yet, according to a 2020 study, only about 38 percent of the vascular or higher plant specimens in herbaria are available in digital form; much of the rest remains “dark data” confined to smaller, regional herbaria.
The rise of bioinformatics has revolutionized the way we perceive herbaria. These repositories of dried and pressed plants have transformed into browsable digital databases, providing instant access to millions of scanned specimens worldwide. Roma Tre University's pioneering roadmap, DEXSCO, prioritizes species for de-extinction based on seed behaviour, longevity, and evolutionary distinctiveness.
The project analysed online databases, identifying 556 specimens with seeds representing 161 extinct plant species. The marriage of bioinformatics and herbarium specimens has created a roadmap for prioritizing the 50 plant species with the highest de-extinction potential.
As global efforts to digitize specimens continue, and more herbaria enter the world of big data, the number de-extinction candidates will inevitably increase. If researchers prove able to unlock the secrets of long-dormant embryos in herbarium collections, it may truly be possible not only to halt but reverse the rising tide of plant extinction.
The Phillip Island glory pea, which once grew in Australia, is a leading candidate for de-extinction. EDWARDS'S BOTANICAL REGISTER.
The Rewards from Relics
Dried-up seeds, survivors of centuries past, offer another potential source for resurrection. Preserved in seed banks under low humidity and temperatures, these relics harbour the potential to sprout under favourable conditions. While herbaria hold a different kind of treasure: specimens of plants believed lost forever, seed banks focus on preserving rare and imperilled species. Recent decades have seen the preservation of seeds from rare and imperilled species in seed banks, maintained at low humidity and temperatures. However, the challenge lies in determining whether the embryos inside herbarium seeds are dead or dormant, waiting for the right conditions to sprout.
Giulia Albani Rocchetti's discovery of two Ranunculus specimens with mature fruits in Florence's Central Herbarium exemplifies the potential stored within these relics. Bioinformatics and advancements in in vitro embryo rescue techniques enhance the odds of reviving dormant embryos into viable plants.
Plant De-Extinction: A More Promising Frontier?
While attempts to de-extinct the dodo, the woolly mammoth, and other charismatic megafauna continue to grab headlines, they would result at best in a hybrid, genetically engineered animal — a proxy of an extinct species. By contrast, recovering plants by germinating or tissue-culturing any surviving seeds or spores preserved in herbaria would result in the resurrection of the actual species.
Plant de-extinction efforts intersect with broader conservation strategies, including habitat restoration and protection of existing plant species. The scope, potential and the utility of recreating plant species, while not so dramatic, serve our environmental commitments more substantially and whets and satisfies our scientific quest much better.
Challenges and Controversies
Notwithstanding the excitement and enthusiasm, the resurrected species have created in the world of science, De-extinction remains a controversial topic, with ethical, ecological, and practical considerations at the forefront. Critics argue that resources allocated to de-extinction could be better utilized for conserving existing endangered species and habitats. The potential ecological impacts of introducing resurrected species into modern ecosystems demand careful consideration.
The field of de-extinction is in its infancy, and despite notable achievements, numerous challenges persist. Financial support for plant de-extinction faces hurdles, but the relative lack of controversy compared to animal de-extinction offers a more optimistic outlook.
As the debate on the ethics and feasibility of de-extinction intensifies, researchers delve into herbaria, bioinformatics, and cutting-edge technologies to unveil the potential of resurrecting lost species. The challenges are formidable, but the prospect of breathing life back into extinct organisms invites us to reconsider the boundaries of human creativity and the stewardship of our planet's biodiversity.
Surprisingly India’s contribution to this exciting and unfolding realm is either insignificant or it has not been noticed. Biologists from India have in the past made valuable contribution in several fields including genetics and Ecology. Dr. Har Gobind Khurana, a Nobel Laureate is a clear instance in sight. Perhaps there is a need to pay greater attention to this emerging area as also to bring to light the work being done. One often hears about the loss of several medicinal herbs and plants. As there is a resurgence of Ayurved world-wide, many of these herbs could become a befitting candidate for de-construction.
Stretching the Limits of Human Creativity
“When a plant goes extinct,” says Giulia Albani Rocchetti, a postdoctoral researcher at Roma Tre University, “we don’t just lose a species, we lose a member of a habitat community with a specific role and relations with other species; we lose millennia of evolution and adaptation; we lose genes which could have provided insight into the species and its community and yielded new pharmacological compounds and other products.” If the species can be brought back to life, there is a chance that all of that can be recovered. Nothing expresses so succinctly the relevance and value of de-extinction efforts.
The saga of de-extinction, weaving together the realms of AI, genetics, and biological history, invites us to ponder the limits of human creativity and our responsibility as stewards of Earth's biodiversity. From the resurrection of ancient mammoths to the germination of Siberian St. John's Wort from permafrost, the journey of de-extinction unfolds as a testament to human ingenuity and the undying quest to rewrite the chapters of evolutionary history.
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)