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De-Extinction Brings Dead Species Back to Life


With technology reminiscent of Jurassic Park, scientists plan to revive long-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.

The practice of cloning has long been stigmatized. Although the potential benefits have yet to be definitively weighed against the possible ethical repercussions, according to National Geographic, a technology called de-extinction is now within reach.

In the past decade alone, scientific tools and procedures have improved so that the idea of successfully cloning animals has moved from a vague fantasy to a tenable reality. Environmentalist Stewart Brand has been researching the possibility of bringing back the passenger pigeon, a species hunted to extinction in 1914. Ben Novak is a genetics student heading up the passenger pigeon research for environmentalist Stewart Brand’s Revive & Restore organization. “We’re going to build from scratch the code that is a passenger pigeon, one gene at a time, [and] compare it to its closest relative. Then we’re going to introduce DNA into the living cell of a Band-tailed pigeon,” he explains in a video from TIME Magazine. “When you introduce an extinct animal’s egg cell into a new mother, then you’ve changed the game, which has been done.”

Novak is referring to past attempts to clone the Pyrenean ibex. In 2003, Spanish and French reproductive physiologists were able to revive the cells of the extinct goat. The team used the preserved cells of the last ibex, who had died in 1989, to inject nuclei into goat eggs and implant the eggs in surrogate mothers. Few implantations resulted in pregnancies, and most pregnancies ended in miscarriage. However, one birth resulted in a clone of the Pyrenean ibex. The animal was born with respiratory defects and died within ten minutes, a short-lived and bittersweet first success at de-extinction.

Although technology has much improved since 2003, the revival of a once-extinct species is still years away and would only be possible for species that died out within the past couple tens of thousands of years. The events of Jurassic Park will not be relived any time soon. However, with the current advances in biotechnology, both scientists and the public may soon have to question whether bringing back extinct species is a reality they are willing to face. “One of the things we’ve gotten used to is the horrifying realization that extinction is forever,” Brand says. “But what if the new truth is that de-extinction is forever?”

Of course, there are several issues to work past before de-extinction becomes widely accepted. Revived species would be living in an environment vastly different from the one they inhabited before extinction, and the possibility of new diseases rapidly wiping them out is a real possibility. Protestors call the technology an expensive distraction from the more pressing matter of dwindling populations of living species. Since many of these species were killed through human interference and hunting, questions of whether the world is even ready to welcome these species back have been raised.

Supporters of de-extinction counter these reservations with suggestions of increased biological diversity and benefits to medical studies. With further research, the expenses of biotechnology should decrease rapidly. Scientists can research the protection of nearly extinct species while working on de-extinction, and as Church points out, “It’s hard to say in advance what’s distraction and what’s salvation.” As far as the complaints that scientists are attempting to play God or meddle unnecessarily, Novak says, “It was our direct activity that caused that extinction. For me, biotech is the future of conservation, because our meddling is not unnatural. It is what species do.”

Photo by John Goode, licensed under Creative Commons.