To explore ethical issues and moral dilemmas surrounding conservation and de-extinction efforts.
This lesson uses the book Resurrection Science by M.R. O'Connor. This book was one of the finalists of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Resurrection Science explores the idea of de-extinction and conservation biology by highlighting many ethical questions. M.R. O’Connor introduces a different species in each chapter and the conservation efforts involved and dilemmas that ensue. This book also introduces the cutting edge genetics method, CRISPR-Cas9, as a genome editing tool that can be used by scientists to resurrect extinct animals.
This lesson provides links to different talks and worksheets for each chapter as guided reading for the students. An introduction to genetics and ecology is necessary for understanding a lot of the terminology in the book. This lesson is also divided into three parts: 1. Introduction to the material; 2. Guided readings for each chapter with discussion questions; and 3. Assessment of student knowledge with three possible acitvities.
It will be important to emphasize the important genetic concepts to alleviate any misconceptions students may have on this topic. Students may be familiar with DNA, but not understand the connection between DNA and phenotypic traits. DNA is the genetic code shared between all life, but how it is expressed into protein is really what makes an organism unique. Proteins are the workhorse of the cell and have various functions and through their activity, an organism’s physical appearance and their physiology are determined. For example, all the cells in our body have the same DNA yet how the genes are expressed into different proteins and their activities distinguishes heart cells from lung cells. Students will need to review the central dogma, which is how DNA is transcribed into RNA which is then translated into protein. They need to understand that genes are found on DNA and depending on what the organism needs, only certain genes are transcribed into RNA, which is another code to tell the cell which proteins to make.
The book will introduce students to CRISPR-Cas9 and how it is used as a genome editing tool and the future applications of this method. In short, CRISPR-Cas9 has become a genome editing tool that was discovered in bacteria as means of acquired immunity against bacteriophage infections. By designing a short RNA sequence, which is the guide RNA, this can direct the Cas9 protein to cut the complementary DNA sequence. This tool has been applied to genetic research to delete genes in other cells, which can also be replaced by other genes. For de-extinction scientists, this would allow them to edit the genome of a close relative of the extinct animal and replace the genes with the extinct animal's genes. This also could be applied to medicine in treatment of viral diseases and targeting mutated genes that cause cancer.
Another misconception students may have is understanding the connection between genetic diversity and evolution. Natural selection is one of the driving mechanisms of evolution that can only act on existing traits in a population and these traits are due to genes found in the DNA. As described above, DNA determines physical traits. Another term students will need to be familiar with is allele. Alleles are different versions of genes. Students will need to be reminded that half their chromosomes are from their mother and half are from their father. For example, they have one allele from their mother and one allele from their father for the gene for eye color. Hence, sexual reproduction shuffles alleles around to create new genetic combinations in the eggs and sperm. Genetic diversity that is mentioned in many chapters is referring to the diversity of the gene pool or every possible allele in a given population.
Genetic variation is important and can result from random mutations that occur in the DNA to bring about new alleles. As mentioned above, sexual reproduction also contributes to genetic variation in the offspring. In many cases mentioned in this book, populations can undergo genetic drift during captive breeding, inbreeding, and smaller population size. Genetic drift is when certain alleles become selected for by chance and the population becomes less genetically diverse over time. The diversity of the alleles for certain traits in most cases allows for adaptation and natural selection to occur. Many of the chapters reference “genetic fitness” and students may misinterpret the word “fitness” to mean strength. Fitness here refers to reproductive success. A fit organism has desirable traits for the given environment, which ensures its survival and therefore reproductive success. Reproduction then allows these favorable traits coded in the organism’s DNA to pass onto their offspring and future generations will evolve over time to have these traits. It is important to remind students that populations evolve, not individuals.
Many of the questions students will be asked are opinion-based and they will be asked to explain their opinions. Emphasize to the students in these cases there is no right or wrong answer but these questions are meant to be thought-provoking and will help lead the students to support their opinions with information they read or research.
Also keep in mind and remind students that the author is a journalist, not a scientist. Therefore, she has reported in a way to give her unbiased view of the topic at hand and present information and views from various sources. By presenting these various points of views, students can gather a lot of information and hopefully become motivated to research this information further to form their own view on the topic. If students get hung up on some information, encourage them to do more research on the topic to help them better understand.
Ideas in this lesson are related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.
Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
This lesson is divided into three parts:
Part 1. Students will start with the Introduction to Genetics student sheet to address some basic knowledge that is needed to understand some of the terminology and concepts in the book. Students will also review the concept of CRISPR-Cas9 and how this technology is being used to "resurrect" extinct animals.
Part 2. Students will be assigned chapters of this book at your discretion and complete the reading guides provided for each chapter.
Part 3. Students will take what they have learned from the previous activities and explore further their own opinions of the ethical questions mentioned in the book. There are three possible activities, including a writing assignment on an assigned topic, a class debate on an assigned ethical question, or a group discussion activity in which the students take on certain roles to look at the ethical questions from different sides.
It is suggested that you read either the entire book or chapters that you have selected to familiarize yourself with the lesson. Please review the links listed below that will help you build some background knowledge for this lesson. Additional resources are provided on the teacher sheets that are specific for those student sheets. It would be a good idea for you to decide ahead of time which assignments you would like the students to do in class or as homework. These assignments can be done either way. If done in the classroom, the students will need computers with internet access.
Informative articles and talks that are used in the lesson:
- Woolly Mammoth on Verge of Resurrection, Scientists Reveal
- Should We Bring Extinct Species Back from the Dead?
- Podcast Interview with M.R. O’Connor - interview doesn't start till 17:30 and ends at 51:40
- Bringing Extinct Species Back from the Dead Could Hurt—Not Help—Conservation Efforts
- TED Talks on De-Extinction
- Stewart Brand talk: The Dawn of De-Extinction. Are You Ready?
- Svante Pääbo talk: DNA Clues to Our Inner Neanderthal
- What Is CRISPR?
- TED talk - What You Need to Know about CRISPR
To begin this lesson, gauge students' understanding of species biodiversity and extinction. Start by asking the students about endangered and extinct species and asking the difference between the two. You can ask students questions like these:
- How do you define an extinct and endangered species?
- What is a keystone species? How might the extinction of one affect an ecosystem?
- What are some extinct and endangered species out there?
- What are some factors that lead to the extinction of species?
- What criteria do you believe that species should have in order to preserve them?
- (Extinct species are those species that are no long known to exist. Endangered species are ones that are seriously at risk of extinction.)
- (A keystone species is one that helps to define an ecosystem and on which other species in the ecosystem depend. Answers may vary for how its extinction may affect an ecosystem. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
- (Examples of extinct species include the passenger pigeon, dodo bird, dinosaur, etc. Examples of endangered species include Giant pandas, lions, cheetahs, fruit bats, etc. Students may also provide examples of plant species that are extinct or endangered.)
- (Factors include loss of habitat, overhunting, climate change, etc.)
- (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
Then, see if they can name a few endangered or extinct species. Students can use their Resurrection Science student esheet to go to the IUCN red list to search for endangered and extinct species. (IUCN stands for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.) See if they can name some of the endangered and extinct species out there. Ask students to look for several endangered or extinct species on the list and share the name and IUCN status about those species.
Next, gauge students' understanding of biodiversity and what this means. Biodiversity as a whole pertains to the number of different species on our planet, but can also be seen at a genetics level. The greater the species diversity, the greater the richness of the gene pool and the sustainability for all life. This will be a great place to build on the previous discussion about how different species interact with one another in an ecosystem and how removing one species can greatly impact that ecosystem. For example, the passenger pigeon, which is mentioned in the book, is a great example of when a keystone species becomes extinct, how its ecosystem is greatly impacted.
You can go on to discuss the importance of biodiversity and how it applies to us. Ask students:
- What do you know about biodiversity?
- What do we gain from biodiversity?
- How does the biodiversity of species relate to you and what are some possible causes of extinction and threats to biodiversity?
- (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
- (Some gains are that animals are just cool. Others are that certain species may have undiscovered medicinal uses for us or be used for genetics research. An ethical question to bring up is if the value of a species should be defined based solely on its use to humans.)
- (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
This is a week-long (this may vary) lesson plan that is divided into three parts and can be structured in various ways to address the level of students in the class. Students also will be able to complete these assignments both in the classroom and/or at home.
Part 1 Introduction
The introductory student sheets will serve as a review on topics mentioned in the book and will be a great place to start and provide a basic foundation for students to build from.
Students should use the student esheet to watch some of the videos listed below. You can decide which videos your students should watch to answer the questions on their Introduction to Genetics student sheet. You can find answers to the questions on the Introduction to Genetics teacher sheet and discuss the questions as a class.
- The Central Dogma of Genetics
- Heredity: Crash Course Biology
- Genetic Variation, Gene Flow, and New Species
- What Is CRISPR?
Now, students should use their Resurrection Science student esheet to watch one of two TED talks or both if there is time. Once students have watched one of the videos, they should answer the questions on the Introduction to De-Extinction student sheet. Answers are provided on the Introduction to De-Extinction teacher sheet. You can discuss the questions as a class.
Part 2 Book Chapters
In this part of the lesson, students should use the reading guides to help walk them through the book chapters. You can find answers to the questions and further information on the respective teacher sheets. Keep in mind that many of the questions are opinion-based or involve additional research, so answers will vary. Many chapters have various opinions reported on the topic and students are encouraged to research these topics further to help them form their own understanding. Depending on the class level, further discussion of these ethical questions is encouraged to promote learning and allow students to form their own opinions and questions on current topics.
Resurrection Science has distinct, almost stand-alone chapters. The chapters are all examples of the book’s theme. Under your direction, students can be assigned different chapters or the entire book. It will be necessary for each student to have their own book or at most have the students share in pairs. The reading guides are tailored for each chapter and include key terms the students need to define, additional resources to read or listen to, and questions to answer. Many of the questions will ask the students about the key concepts in the chapters but also may ask opinion-based questions. After the students have completed the reading guides and explored the chapters in depth, you can hold a class discussion. Answers for the student sheets are provided on the corresponding teacher sheets. (Chapter reading guide student and teacher sheets are found in the What You Need column to your left.)
In order to assess student understanding, you can have your students do one of the three activities described here. You could have all students do just one of the activities or perhaps assign some students to Activity 1, some to Activity 2, and some to Activity 3.
Activity 1 Writing Assignment
Five writing topics are provided to address key ethical questions found on the De-Extinction Writing Assignment student sheet. Students can pick which question they would like to answer and complete the assignment according to your writing instructions. They should use any of the outside resources provided and the book to support their topic.
Activity 2 Debate Assignment
Hold a debate over similar ethical questions addressed in the book found on the De-Extinction Debate Assignment student sheet. Assign students to either the pro or con side. Then, hold a class debate in which students should follow the debate guidelines provided on the student sheet.
Activity 3 Discussion Assignment
Provide students with the Group Discussion Activity student sheet. Divide the class into different interest groups such as conservationists, economists, etc. Then, assign the interest groups to chapters in the book:
- Chapter 1 Interest Groups: Economists, Conservationists, Local people, Environmental ethicist
- Chapter 2 Interest Groups: Conservationists, Environmental ethicist, Local people, Scientists in bioengineering
- Chapter 7 Interest Groups: Conservationists, Passenger Pigeon enthusiasts, Scientists in bioengineering, Environmental ethicist
Students should look at the assigned chapters from these different perspectives and answer the associated questions. The goal is for them to hammer out a solution that works for the various interests represented in their group.
Then, one representative from each group should come together in a group meeting, such as might resemble a town council meeting, where they have to find a solution that will work for everyone. They should further discuss the questions/dilemma addressed in the book and discuss the outcome presented and other ways to address to issue.
The whole class discussion then should look at those compromise solutions and see how/if they differ at all, and if so, what was the compelling argument that moved it in one way or another.
These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as extensions: