This year marks the 20th year anniversary of Jurassic Park, the film based on Michael Crichton’s novel with the same name and interestingly another milestone with a similar agenda is making waves in the science forum: de-extinction.
Many literature works warn of the vagaries of science run amok such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. But if you don’t try, how will you know it’s impossible? Isn’t that the premise of science? Do we not expect science to go where no one has gone before in order to cure cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or simply put …right our wrongs?
If we had the power to turn back the hands of time around 10 000 years ago, wouldn’t you like to see woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) returned to Siberia? What about the aurochs (Bos primigenius), a type of cow that went extinct in 1627; the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), a marsupial wolf –extinct 1936; the bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica), an ibex –extinct 2000?
Sometime in February of 2012, a meeting was held at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and eventually in October 2012, a meeting supported by National Geographic brought together scientists from all over the world in a quest to determine if de-extinction was truly possible. The most likely candidate to have return to the skies is the red-breasted American passenger pigeon, currently being investigated for its de-extinction potential.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE PASSENGER PIGEON DE-EXTINCTION
The process is based on the DNA of the band tailed pigeon , a living pigeon relative plus chunks of old DNA pieced together from museum specimens of the extinct pigeon.
Once the DNA pieces that give the extinct pigeon its red breast feathers, its longer tail, and other specific traits are identified, they can be inserted into the DNA of the living pigeon.
Stem cells containing the assembled patchwork DNA will be converted into germ cells (sperm and ova) and then inserted into chicken eggs. Thus, the chickens that hatch from the manipulated eggs will be chickens by all means but will carry the genetic material of passenger pigeons in their reproductive organs. Upon fertilization between a hybrid male chicken and hybrid female chicken, the eggs will hatch out brand new, de-extinct passenger pigeons.
There are two more de-extinction techniques that could have the potential to re-create long lost species. In the case of the extinct European aurochs efforts are based in back-breeding techniques: a form of artificial selection from living cattle relatives with the aim of recreating the traits of the extinct aurochs. The other technique is similar to a cloning procedure that eventually gave rise to Dolly, the first cloned animal in 1996. The cryogenically frozen tissue of a recently extinct animal can be transformed and implanted into a surrogate mother of a similar species.
There will be no mosquitoes trapped in amber and dinosaurs are off limits, but animals that still have living relatives are very likely to be returned to their native ecosystems. According to Revive and Restore, the upper limit for ancient DNA is 200 000 years.
QUESTIONS AND DEBATE
Keystone species have a disproportionately large effect on the ecosystem to which they belong when compared to their abundance within the respective ecosystem. The woolly mammoth was thought to be such a species since with its disappearance the Siberian plains were transformed from grasslands into unproductive moss filled tundra.
Human made extinctions, especially of keystone species, left gaping holes in ecosystems and should not be confused with the natural extinctions that occur in nature when two organisms compete for the same resources. Our impact was definite and irreversible until now, which begs the question: should we reverse the damage we created and what will the consequences of our actions bring?
Is there anything wrong with fixing the mistakes of modern man or would we be fulfilling the needs of the guilty common consciousness? If we successfully reverse extinction some might consider preservation efforts obsolete since we can now bring back any animal we desire as long as we have a common living relative.
Should we continue on this path of de-extinction by accessing Noah’s Ark of lost genes in order to repopulate our world after a flood of self-interest and inability to care for our environment?
Could the cure for cancer lie in some compound found only in a certain extinct animal’s blood or are we playing with Promethean fire?