The idea of bringing back extinct species isn’t a novelty: we’ve seen some scientists and companies trying to bring back extinct animals to life again like the dodo.
Since it’s more complicated to do that, the focus has been shifted to reviving extinct palms. And, the researchers have begun making their moves.
For one, researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology have successfully sequenced the genome of date palm varieties which lived more than 2000 years ago.
The researchers used a technique called “resurrection genomics” and their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was the first time that scientists could sequence the genomes of plants from ancient, germinated seeds.
They got the date palm seeds from specimens recovered from archaeological sites in modern-day Israel. After radiocarbon tests, they found that the seeds were from the 4th century BCE to the 2nd century CE.
After doing the genome sequencing of the germinated ancient samples, the researchers then used the data to examine the genetics of these previously extinct Judean date palms.
By examining the genome of a species (Phoenix dactylifera L.), NYU Biology Professor Michael D. Purugganan along with research partners and colleagues could see how the plants evolved over a period of time.
When they observed that between the 4th century BCE and 2nd century CE, date palms in the eastern Mediterranean started to show increasing levels of genes from another species, Phoenix theophrasti. Today, because of hybridization between species, P. theophrasti grows in some parts of Greece and southwestern Turkey.
Therefore, the NYU researchers believed that the increasing level of genes from P. theophrasti over this period was caused by the increasing influence of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean.
The path to resurrecting extinct plants
The researchers stated that resurrection genomics can offer an alternative to other approaches to sequencing ancient DNA. In fact, it’s particularly useful for ancient and extinct plant species.
Compared to fossils, ancient plant DNA is often a harder area for studying because it easily degrades without the protection of material like bone. Moreover, we’ve only found it in small quantities.
Nevertheless, regrowing the whole plant offers new possibilities.
Purugganan said, “We are fortunate that date palm seeds can live a long time—in this case, more than 2,000 years—and germinate with minimal DNA damage, in the dry environment of the region.”
According to the researcher, the resurrection genomics approach is an effective way to study genetics, past evolution, and maybe extinct species like Judean date palms.
“By reviving biological material such as germinating ancient seeds from archaeological and paleontological sites, or historical collections, we can not only study the genomes of lost populations but also, in some instances, rediscover genes that may have gone extinct in modern varieties,” Purugganan said.
Furthermore, the researchers suggest that their findings could provide key tools to really bring back those extinct date palms. Purugganan said that in principle, we could use resurrection genomics to revive any extinct species. But reviving plants—according to Purugganan, was more doable, with certain results.
“Dinosaurs are probably not possible—but certainly plants, if we have seeds, or even bacteria or other microbes are possible,” the NYU Biology Professor said.
Could there be other plant species to revive?
According to another study, yes!
It all started in 1769, when botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander found a type of daisy, Chiliotrichum amelloides, which had never been seen before. Both of the botanists then continued to collect over a thousand plant species and documented each one meticulously.
Banks and Solander also preserved their botanical treasures, knowing that people in the future would want to inquire further about them. The daisy got the same treatment as well; it was carefully dried and pressed, its delicate form immortalized within the pages of a herbarium.
This specimen has become a one of nearly 8 million preserved plants at the New York Botanical Garden’s William & Lynda Steere Herbarium.
Thanks to that herbarium, scientists were able to use the current advancement of technology to understand it planet Earth’s history regarding the plant life.
And recently, scientists have published an extensive list of plant species which have been globally extinct that they believe could have a great chance of being revived out of the specimens of the herbarium. Biologists have expressed their optimism and enthusiasm about the chances of resurrecting the long deemed lost plant species.
Still not as easy as it sounds
Although bringing back plants is somewhat an easier task, it’s certainly not easy either.
According to the lead author of this study, which was published on the journal Nature Planet, the extinction of a plant represents not merely the loss of a single species but the unraveling of a complex web of ecological relationships, millennia of evolution, and the potential for invaluable genetic resources.
However, botanical resurrection has to hurdle challenges because the pants are intricate and delicate.
In modern conservation, seed banks are vital to safeguard threatened species’ genetic legacy. Unfortunately, the seeds of species which have perished and rested in herbaria are dormant, trapped within the confines of dried and pressed specimens. It had been a rare occurrence to actually get viable seeds until the utilization of current technology.
Now, institutions like the New York Botanical Garden have embraced the digital age. That opened a window to the past for researchers across the globe, enabling them to know crucial metadata.
Also, now that we have improvement in in vitro embryo rescue techniques, it sparks hope that scientists can wake up the dormant embryos within these seeds. Moreover, the scientists are now able to refine their methods, which increases the chance for success in germinating the inactive embryos.
Once researchers can progress, then the dream of reviving species that we’d thought have vanished forever could become reality.
Spark of hope
When we see herbaria, we’ll think of relics or glimpses of plants that used to roam free on this planet and we can only imagine being around them. Sometimes we’ll also think about just how many more undocumented, extinct plants which the botanists hadn’t discovered or documented.
But now, with technological advances, we now can see hope.
For example, Degener’s peperomia (Peperomia degeneri) is a lone survivor species plucked from the lush landscapes of Hawaii’s Moloka’i island. This plant survived through a delicate dance with its surroundings, but we unfortunately lost it to the forces of invasive species and human influence.
The plant simply vanished from sight, and it became an emblem of extinction’s silent march.
But now that we have its “dried” version and the necessary technology, we can say that not all hope is lost.
Will we see more living extinct plants in the future?
Just as efforts to bring back long-gone animals to live, the path ahead for the extinct plants is full of uncertainty. However, reviving extinct plants is still the most hopeful, large-scale project that may give us the promise of rewriting the narrative of extinction.
With herbarium specimens as their guide, scientists have explored the path of being historians and visionaries—with their new jobs to resurrect species and give them another chance at life.
Of course, there will be controversy just like the Lazarus projects for animals. Scientists would soon have to deal with questions of ethics, feasibility, and the potential consequences of playing god.
But some argue that these projects can potentially restore balance to ecosystems. They can also show human inventiveness and keenness to make amends for our mother Earth. Moreover, projects like these can at least give us an understanding about our planet’s past, present, and future.
But for now, we know for sure that the herbarium specimens, which we used to believe simply as relics of a bygone era, now make us rethink modern conservation as well as scientific exploration.