The 10 Minutes When Scientists Brought a Species Back from Extinction

The story of Celia, the last bucardo in the world, and her short-lived clone


Tucked inside Carl Zimmer's wonderful and thorough feature on de-extinction, a topic that got a TEDx coming out party last week, we find a tantalizing, heartbreaking anecdote about the time scientists briefly, briefly brought an extinct species back to life.

The story begins in 1999, when scientists determined that there was a single remaining bucardo, a wild goat native to the Pyrenees, left in the world. They named her Celia and wildlife veterinarian Alberto Fernández-Arias put a radio collar around her neck. She died nine months later in January 2000, crushed by a tree. Her cells, however, were preserved.

Working with the time's crude life sciences tools, José Folch led a Franco-Spanish team that attempted to bring the bucardo, as a species, back from the dead.

It was not pretty. They injected the nuclei from Celia's cells into goat eggs that had been emptied of their DNA, then implanted 57 of them into different goat surrogate mothers. Only seven goats got pregnant, and of those, six had miscarriages. Which meant that after all that work, only a single goat carried a Celia clone to term. On July 30, 2003, the scientists performed a cesarean section.

Here, let's turn the narrative over to Zimmer's story:

As Fernández-Arias held the newborn bucardo in his arms, he could see that she was struggling to take in air, her tongue jutting grotesquely out of her mouth. Despite the efforts to help her breathe, after a mere ten minutes Celia's clone died. A necropsy later revealed that one of her lungs had grown a gigantic extra lobe as solid as a piece of liver. There was nothing anyone could have done.

A species had been brought back. And ten minutes later it was gone again. Zimmer continues

The notion of bringing vanished species back to life--some call it de-extinction--has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world. For most of that time the science of de-extinction has lagged far behind the fantasy. Celia's clone is the closest that anyone has gotten to true de-extinction. Since witnessing those fleeting minutes of the clone's life, Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon's Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department, has been waiting for the moment when science would finally catch up, and humans might gain the ability to bring back an animal they had driven extinct.

"We are at that moment," he told me.

That may be. And the tools available to biologists are certainly superior. But there's no developed ethics of de-extinction, as Zimmer elucidates throughout his story. It may be possible to bring animals that humans have killed off back from extinction, but is it wise, Zimmer asks?

"The history of putting species back after they've gone extinct in the wild is fraught with difficulty," says conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University. A huge effort went into restoring the Arabian oryx to the wild, for example. But after the animals were returned to a refuge in central Oman in 1982, almost all were wiped out by poachers. "We had the animals, and we put them back, and the world wasn't ready," says Pimm. "Having the species solves only a tiny, tiny part of the problem."

Maybe another way to think about it, as Jacquelyn Gill argues in Scientific American, is that animals like mammoths have to perform (as the postmodern language would have it) their own mammothness within the complex social context of a herd.

When we think of cloning woolly mammoths, it's easy to picture a rolling tundra landscape, the charismatic hulking beasts grazing lazily amongst arctic wildflowers. But what does cloning a woolly mammoth actually mean? What is a woolly mammoth, really? Is one lonely calf, raised in captivity and without the context of its herd and environment, really a mammoth?

Does it matter that there are no mammoth matriarchs to nurse that calf, to inoculate it with necessary gut bacteria, to teach it how to care for itself, how to speak to other mammoths, where the ancestral migration paths are, and how to avoid sinkholes and find water? Does it matter that the permafrost is melting, and that the mammoth steppe is gone?...

Ultimately, cloning woolly mammoths doesn't end in the lab. If the goal really is de-extinction and not merely the scientific equivalent of achievement unlocked!, then bringing back the mammoth means sustained effort, intensive management, and a massive commitment of conservation resources. Our track record on this is not reassuring.

In other words, science may be able to produce the organisms, but society would have to produce the conditions in which they could flourish.