Reviving Lost Species That Might Save Us
Let's investigate why scientists are reviving lost and extinct species that might save us humans!Science
Climate change is radically altering our planet, and not in a good way! Our environment is transforming faster than we can predict, and now it’s affecting our food security, our health, and our everyday lives! What do we do?
Instead of looking to the future, scientists are turning to relics of the past that have been extinct for thousands of years! Species like Woolly Mammoths and Aztec crops, which once survived in harsher environments than what we have to face. Let's dive into some vanished species of the past that might just hold the keys to our salvation!
Crops That Will Help Feed The World
Global warming is dangerously impacting annual wheat yields. A crop essential for the whole brunch buffet, wheat is the key ingredient for everything from bread to pasta. It’s such a staple, that it makes up about 20% of all the protein and calories consumed worldwide.
Wheat grows best in warm temperatures ranging from 70° to 75° F. And global warming is affecting the climate to such an extent that in historically cooler regions like North America and Europe, wheat production may see more than a 5% increase in yield over the coming years.
However, the good news ends there, because wheat also needs water. Typically, crops require 18-21 inches of water to reach maturity. But a hotter climate also means a drier climate. So, important areas such as India, which produces 14% of the world’s wheat, will experience yield drops of 3% or more because of drought!
That means, while warmer climates will increase the number of places wheat can be grown in, the water scarcity will ultimately outweigh this benefit. Overall, it’s predicted that wheat yields will decrease by a massive 6.4% for every 1°C rise in temperature. That means wheat yield losses will total a scary 12% in less than 80 years’ time!
Wheat prices will go up, to the point products like bread and cereal will be unaffordable to the majority of people who rely on them today. And that’s just the beginning. Rising global temperatures will also cause the decline of other food staples such as rice and corn! Due to the impact of hot climates and scarce rainfall, maize, also known as corn, is predicted to have a worldwide yield decline of over 24% by 2030! That’s just a few years away!
Meanwhile, rice, a daily staple for more than 3.5 billion people across the globe, is calculated to decline by 10% for each 1°C increase in temperature. And the super scary thing is, just these three crops, rice, wheat, and corn, provide nearly half of the world’s calories!
To make matters worse, scientists predict that warming climates will make fungal diseases, such as Northern corn leaf blight, even more aggressive! This nasty disease causes grey, necrotic-looking tumorous growths to sprout on corn combs, ravaging them until they look like something straight out of Stranger Things!
Outbreaks of corn leaf blight are catastrophic, reducing yields by up to 70%! It caused an alarming loss of 74.5 million bushels of grain in 2012 and a scary 132.3 million bushels of grain in 2013! What’s more, it’s predicted that the fungus will adapt to hotter temperatures to not only make outbreaks more severe but harder to breed crops resistant to the disease!
So, are we all going to have to diet? Thankfully, we won’t have to turn to such drastic measures yet, as there’s a hot pink crop we can swap over for wheat and corn: Amaranth! It's an ancient crop utilized by the Aztecs, over 700 years ago!
It was once considered a sacred, life-giving crop, which farmers would ritually mix with human blood before spreading the seeds across their fields. Spanish colonizers originally banned Aztec and Mayan people from growing the sacred crop for fear of its ritual connection to the people, which saw once huge harvests of it die out.
However, the plant continued to covertly grow as a weed. Locals secretly saved the seeds and passed them down for generations! Now, farmers are looking at amaranth as a staple of the future as it’s drought-resistant, perfect for tackling hotter, drier climates.
And with so many hungry mouths to feed, it’s a good thing the entirety of the 8-foot plant is edible from leaf to seed! It comes in many colors, with leaves ranging from light green to dark red! The stalks are also topped off with red, orange, or green seed-filled plumes.
Across Africa and Asia, amaranth has long been eaten as a vegetable! And now it’s likely to be a common side on western plates as well. Today, farmers in Guatemala, Mexico, and the US are collaborating to grow amaranth. This long-lost ancient crop is coming back with a vengeance! However, to feed the world, we’re gonna need more than just 1 climate-proof crop.
Luckily, back in the 1980s, researchers at the Rodale Institute identified a new species called intermediate wheatgrass, a cereal crop similar to traditional wheat, which has, incredibly, been under our noses the whole time! It wasn’t even like it went extinct, we just never recognized its potential. Somehow that’s even more shocking.
Regardless, in 2019 we finally managed to domesticate this wheatgrass, naming it Kernza. Unlike other wheatgrasses, which have to be resewn with fresh seeds year after year, Kernza can regrow again from the same rootstock!
This is because it establishes a deep root system over 10 feet deep into the soil, whereas other wheatgrasses only establish a root system with a maximum depth of 4.8 feet. This gives Kernza the incredible ability to regrow again and again, making it an agricultural hero!
Usually, when farmers resew the fields every year with fresh seeds, this requires huge amounts of water, fertilizer, and energy, resulting in tons of carbon emissions. But Kernza’s roots remain in the soil, and not only do they store additional carbon, but they also reduce water and fertilizer requirements!
And as the field doesn’t have to be tilled to resew seeds, it also prevents soil erosion! Now that’s what you call a super crop! While researchers are still working to improve the grain’s yield, farmers in Minnesota, Kansas, and Montana today are growing nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza!
Leprosy Bacteria And Liver Regeneration
One of the worst historical diseases was leprosy, a deadly, disfiguring disease that ran rampant across Europe over 800 years ago, causing nerve and skin damage in the worst ways possible! In 1200 CE, an estimated 19,000 leprosy hospitals existed in Europe, that’s how bad it was.
Thankfully, with modern antibiotics, the bacterial infection that causes leprosy can now be treated, and it’s on the brink of being wiped off the earth for good! However, it still poses an active threat in developing countries with tropical climates.
While many scientists have been trying to find ways to eradicate it, one team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh is looking to harness it! Leprosy is caused by a bacteria known as Mycobacterium leprae, which is spread through prolonged exposure to someone with untreated leprosy coughing or sneezing. The bacteria grow very slowly, and it may take up to 20 years for someone to show symptoms of leprosy.
Though the effects can be devastating, as it attacks the nerves, which causes numbness. Without the ability to feel touch or pain, this often results in the afflicted person obtaining numerous injuries they aren’t immediately aware of, with the infected skin becoming dry and flaky. Untreated, extensive nerve damage can result in paralysis of the hands and feet.
So, why on earth would scientists be giving this horrifying disease the thumbs up? It turns out the bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, can reverse liver damage! The liver is a vital organ, performing hundreds of jobs from processing blood to creating nutrients and metabolizing medicines!
The liver is the de-tox machine of the body, better than any juice cleanses Gwyneth Paltrow could ever recommend. However, excessive alcohol consumption, a build-up of excess fat, or hepatitis infection can result in cirrhosis, an end-stage liver disease of excess scarring that can cause liver failure and death.
With our increasingly sedentary and excessive lifestyle, liver disease is only going to become a bigger problem. But the only treatment for liver failure is a liver transplant, and the demand has never been higher. More than 100 million people in the US alone have some form of liver disease, and a staggering 20% of those who require a liver transplant will become too sick or perish before they can get one.
But leprosy may provide the solution for an alternative treatment! Experiments in armadillos infected with leprosy, the only other species cable of carrying leprosy, have shown the bacteria’s incredible ability to surprisingly almost double the size of the liver!
Infected liver cells undergo partial reprogramming where they revert into an immature state that allows them to divide and regenerate, producing more healthy liver cells! This, bizarrely, is a survival tactic of the leprae bacteria, ensuring it has more healthy tissue to infect and consume. Both gross and ingenious.
If successfully harnessed, this could be a major medical breakthrough, providing lifesaving treatment for those requiring a liver transplant. There’s also evidence to suggest leprae bacteria could be used to reverse other signs of aging.
They can help with getting rid of wrinkles, and re-growing healthy skin cells to replace damaged ones from other harmful diseases like skin cancer, or even leprosy itself! So, effectively, reverse engineering leprosy to beat the aesthetic deformations of leprosy!
However, all these ideas remain untested, as experiments have only been conducted on armadillos and have yet to go to human trial. It’s still unknown if these will be successful, but if Gwyneth Paltrow eventually starts trying to sell a way to restore your liver with leprosy, it might not be as crazy as it sounds!
Stenophylla: The Future of Coffee?
Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you spring out of bed, or do you only come alive with a cup of coffee? For all you night owls, I have some "despresso" news: Coffee is going extinct!
With what seems like a Starbucks on every corner in America, it’s impossible to imagine coffee supplies ever running out. But scientists predict up to 60% of coffee species could go extinct in the very near future!
Currently, there are 124 types of wild coffee species, the beans of which are ground up into our morning cup of joe. However, 75 of these species are at risk of extinction! In fact, the most popular kind of coffee for commercial use, arabica, is already on the endangered species list! It’s predicted that arabica coffee could disappear in as little as 60 years!
So why is coffee in danger? Are there packs of roving hipsters plundering coffee plantations, stealing all the best beans for their beat poetry gatherings? Surprisingly, hipsters aren’t to blame, but lax environmental laws are.
Out of the 124 wild coffee species, 35 of them grow in areas with no conservation protections! These wild coffee species have been devastated by the impact of deforestation because they require a forest environment in order to grow. Forest trees protect coffee crops by circulating soil nutrients, storing water, and reducing temperatures through shading.
Furthermore, coffee crops are vulnerable to rising temperatures caused by climate change. Experts estimate that 50% of the land used for growing coffee will not be farmable by 2100! Coffee could be coming to a bitter end and this wouldn’t just have a crippling effect on us caffeine addicts, but also on many African economies.
Ethiopia alone accounts for 3% of all global coffee production, with the coffee industry accounting for 60% of African export income, supporting 15 million workers. A coffee extinction could cause a mass loss of many people’s livelihoods.
Though there is a long-lost coffee relative that could save both insomniacs and coffee workers alike. A lesser-known coffee plant known as Coffea Stenophylla; a rare wild coffee from West Africa that tastes similar to Arabica coffee but is better at handling hotter environments. It’s ideal for the increasingly hot climate that we’ve caused through global warming!
So, coffee drinkers of the world could be switching to a cool new bean in the near future that looks remarkably similar to the old bean. Perfect for people who hate change! However, super Stenophylla won’t be enough. The world needs to preserve as many diverse coffee species as possible because developing commercial coffee that’s resistant to new diseases and pests is essential to the industry.
To create genetically modified plants, researchers are starting to preserve a large pool of diverse coffee genes from different species of coffee plants. To save the future of coffee, proper conservation measures will need to be put in place.
Resurrecting The Woolly Mammoth
Woolly mammoths died out around 10,000 years ago towards the end of the ice age. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what killed them off, but agree it was probably a mix of humans overhunting them, and them being unable to adapt to earth’s naturally warming climate.
But that isn’t the last we’ve seen of woolly mammoths, as scientists are actively working on bringing them back from the dead! Scientists, at Colossal Biosciences, believe that reintroducing woolly mammoths to the environment could help reverse climate change.
Mammoths once played a vital role in the Siberian ecosystem. Their huge tusks scraped away layers of snow, allowing cold air to reach the soil and maintain the permafrost. They kept arctic shrubs and trees under control and fertilized grasses with their manure.
After mammoths disappeared, they left a gaping hole in the ecosystem. Thick layers of snow with insulating properties meant the permafrost began to warm and break up, releasing tons of greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere!
So, they plan to try and revive this extinct species, the perfect solution to this mammoth-sized problem! Even though complete mammoth remains have been found, fur and all, reviving an extinct species is a lot harder than just defibrillating a frozen fossil!
To revive woolly mammoths, scientists have to sequence the creature’s entire genetic code, then edit the DNA of a close living relative, such as the Asian Elephant, to match it. But even a slight difference in DNA can result in a wholly different animal; for example, the DNA difference between humans and chimps is only 1%!
While mammoths and Asian elephants diverged 6 million years ago, with an estimated 1.4 million individual genetic mutations separating the two creatures. So, what scientists aim to do is create hybrid animals, focusing on isolating the mammoth’s cold-tolerant genes and transferring them to elephants, creating woolly elephants instead.
Though the trouble with introducing a new species into the ecosystem, is that they could possibly run rampant. So, if scientists do somehow manage to revive the woolly mammoth, then who’s going to keep them in check? That could be down to reviving an age-old foe of the mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger!
Artistic impressions of the skeletal remains of these creatures vary, but they all have one thing in common, the exceptionally long upper canine teeth! They could grow as long as 8 inches, making them the perfect natural predators of mammoths, with their teeth able to pierce through their thick hides.
They too went extinct around the same time at the end of the last ice age. So, now to combat a potential future mammoth problem, scientists are working on digging up these extinct giant-toothed cats from their frozen graves!
However, research is still in the DNA sequencing stage, and successful embryos of these prehistoric animals have yet to be created. Though if they are successful, we could have woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers roaming around the Artic circle. Suddenly, Siberia sounds like a much cooler future safari destination!
De-extinction Of The Tasmanian Tiger
When the first European settlers arrived in Australia back in 1859, they released 24 rabbits to hunt for sport. And the rabbits did what they do best: ran away and bred! Australia’s climate was ideal for an explosion in the rabbit population, as mild winters meant rabbits could breed all year round.
This devastated the local wildlife as rabbits depleted the grass vegetation, then began snacking on all the shrubs, leaves, and tree bark. The rabbits were eating through Australia! Within 10 years of their introduction, 2 million rabbits could be culled annually without putting a dent in the population.
Today, rabbits are still a plague across Australia. Extreme measures have been taken to try and cull the population, from releasing rabbit viruses to poisons. But these aren’t ecologically friendly, and they’re not a long-term fix. However, there is one solution that might be able to hunt down all these rabbits, reviving a long-lost Australian predator, the Thylacine!
The Europeans who colonized Australia were similarly confused by this creature that looks like a stripey wolf and a small tiger, referring to it as both a “Tasmanian tiger” and a “Tasmanian wolf”. But it’s actually a marsupial, a pouched mammal just like kangaroos. But unlike kangaroos, thylacines were exclusive carnivores, hunting prey of all kinds.
It no doubt would have rescued Australia from the wild rabbit populations. But unfortunately, thylacines went extinct due to a combination of habitat destruction and culling measures. The last thylacine died in a zoo in 1936 and is the only one of its kind captured on film!
However, more thylacines could appear in the future, because scientists at Colossal Biosciences are actively working on bringing these creatures back from extinction! How? By sequencing the thylacine’s DNA and inserting genes into an embryo of its closest living relative, the Dasyuridae!
The thylacine played a vital role in Australia’s ecosystem and with a future breakthrough it may be revived as the solution to Australia’s rabbit plague! Happy news for Australia, but "unhoppy" news for all those rabbits!
Bananas Under Threat
A 2021 survey found that bananas were the most widely purchased fruit among US consumers, with the average citizen consuming roughly 27 pounds of the fruit every year. Collectively, that’s around 4.4 million tons! Although when you consider that 138 million tons of bananas are produced worldwide every year, you suddenly get an idea of how essential bananas really are!
However, there is a dangerous threat to the world’s banana stocks. Not by any rival monkey businesses, but the Panama disease. This disease is caused by a soil-inhabiting fungus, known as Fusarium oxysporum.
The fungus spores infect the young root bases of banana crops, and rapidly invade the rest of the plant, decimating it from the inside out. All the aboveground parts of the plants soon die, with the whole plant eventually withering up completely.
The Fusarium fungus then continues thriving in the soil, preventing new banana plants from being grown and destroying entire banana farms in one blow! It wiped out global plantations of the Gros Michel banana in the 1950s and 60s, which was the most commercially sold banana.
What we tend to think of as a “normal” banana isn’t the only one, because there are more than 1,000 different types of bananas across the globe! These range from the blue skin variety to red-skinned fruits. Though the one most people now recognize is the Cavendish banana, with 95% of the international banana trade reliant on this variety.
However, the Cavendish banana may soon also disappear, because like the Gros Michel, it too has come under threat from a strain of Fusarium fungal disease, known as Tropical Race 4.
But to understand why modern bananas are so vulnerable to disease, we need to understand where they first came from. So, a banana “tree” is actually a type of herb plant, like oregano or basil. And technically, the yellow fruit we eat is a type of berry.
Originally, the yellow curved berry of the banana plant contained huge black seeds that didn’t have a lot of tasty banana flesh. So, cavendish bananas have been selectively bred by humans over hundreds of years to be sterile, meaning the seeds are reduced to little specs along the center.
As the banana plants are sterile, they are instead reproduced through cloning. The banana plant produces “suckers”, a genetically identical baby banana plant that grows off the original stem. These suckers can be removed and planted in the ground, growing into a whole new fruit-bearing plant.
But because they’re all genetically identical, that means they’re all vulnerable to the same fungal disease. This is why whole farms can be wiped out by just one banana plant becoming infected! And with most modern banana plants being sterile, it’s exceptionally difficult to breed new strains of banana resistant to the disease.
So, is the world heading for a permanent banana split? Not just yet. Thanks to the near extinction of Gros Michel and now Cavendish bananas, scientists began looking for ways to diversify global banana crops, which is where the Musa Velutina, or pink hairy banana, comes in.
Originating from India, it’s tiny at just 2 to 3 inches long, it’s furry, and its huge seeds are so hard they can chip a tooth! As such, the wild plant has been long overlooked and hugely under-cultivated.
But now, scientists are using its teeny tiny fruit to help breed disease-resistant banana crops, and their genetically diverse make-up could be the key to protecting their yellow cousins!