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Extinction?Is it in Our Future?

Half of the 114 species that have become extinct, despite the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, once lived in Hawaii. The Center for Biological Diversity says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knowingly delays putting species on the endangered list "to avoid political controversy even when it knew the likely result would be the extinction of the species." Extinction could happen to us too?unless we learn how to lengthen our telomeres.

Because Hawaii has?or had?so many unique species, it has the worst extinction problems in the U.S. Only 19% of these extinct species were put on the endangered list. The CBD's Kieran Suckling says, "But species known to be endangered were stuck in bureaucratic delay and went extinct before they had a chance to be listed?They were sacrificed to bureaucratic inertia, political meddling, and lack of leadership."

Brian Nowicki, who co-authored the CBD report, says, "Listing delays and extinctions have plagued the Fish and Wildlife Service for 30 years, but the Bush administration has pushed the crisis to an unprecedented level." The Bush administration has placed an average of only nine species on the list per year, while the Clinton administration averaged 65 listings per year.

However, Michael Buck, of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, says, "Just getting something on the list does not save endangered species."

In terms of the life of the Earth, humans are fairly recent?will we go extinct any time soon? Kate Ravilious writes in the Mail & Guardian that according to researcher Reinhard Stindl, the answer can be found on the tips of our chromosomes. He believes that all living things except bacteria and algae have an evolutionary clock that counts down to an eventual extinction date. This contradicts Darwin?s theory of natural selection, as well as those who always blame extinction on changes in habitat.

Scientists have long been puzzled about "background" extinction. We know the causes of most mass extinctions, of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but these account for only 4% of extinctions. Most extinct animals seem to disappear quietly. In fact, over 99% of all the species that ever lived on Earth are already extinct.

Paleontologists who examine layers of rock can see that evolution does not run smoothly, but has stops and starts. Species have long stable periods followed by a sudden extinction, rather than a gradual disappearance. Scientists used to think the fossil record was incomplete, but now they think that an extinction date is programmed into each species.

Stindl says it can be explained by the protective caps on the end of chromosomes, called telomeres. When cells divide, they have a hard time copying telomeres properly, and soon they become shorter. Because our telomeres become shorter as we age, this may be what causes aging in the first place. Telomeres also get shorter from generation to generation, as DNA is passed along.

He says, "The shortening of telomeres between generations means that eventually the telomeres become critically short for a particular species, causing outbreaks of disease and finally a population crash. It could explain the disappearance of a seemingly successful species, like Neanderthal man, with no need for external factors such asclimate change."

After a population crash, there are always a few isolated individuals left. When they die off, the species becomes extinct. But if they mate with each other, they can "reset" their cellular clock, elongating their telomeres and starting a new species. This means that despite what we?ve been taught, inbreeding can sometimes be a good thing. "Established strains of lab mice have exceptionally long telomeres compared to those in wild mice, their ancestors," says Stindl. "Those strains of lab mice were inbred intensively from a small population."

Short telomeres may cause diseases as well. Cancer could be caused partly by telomere erosion, since the shortest telomere in humans occurs on chromosome 17 and most human cancers are affected by the loss of a tumor suppressor gene on this chromosome.

Immune deficiency diseases like AIDS and lupus may be brought on by short telomeres in the immune system. Heart attacks and strokes could be caused by the cells lining blood vessels being unable to replace themselves due to telomere erosion. Lower sperm count could also be caused by shortened telomeres.

Stindl says that telomeres shorten only a tiny amount between each generation, meaning it takes thousands of generations before they reach a critical level. This is why many species remain stable for tens to hundreds of thousands of years, creating the long periods in evolution when nothing seems to happen.

The solution for humans? Stindl believes we may be able to elongate our telomeres by increasing the activity of a certain enzyme in embryos. If so, we would be the first species to prevent its own extinction.

Don't be a victim: exercise your power of intention.

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