Woolly mammoth

Now It has a Name: De-extinction

During the last few years, I’ve been hearing talk about reviving extinct animal species. Not a fantasy about resurrecting dinosaurs for kids to see in an amusement park. (Full disclosure: If that were real, I’d probably go bankrupt trying to be able to afford a trip to such a place.)

Not Michael Crichton or Steven Spielberg. But serious people.

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Credit: MacArthur Foundation

People like Beth Shapiro, a 2009 MacArthur Fellow who heads up a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that looks at the pressures that lead animal populations to speciation and extinction. She’s also the author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.

Hendrik Poinar
Hendrik Poinar. Credit: Photo courtesy of McMaster University

And people like Hendrik Poinar, the principal investigator at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre in Toronto and a professor of physical anthropology at McMaster University. His research involves finding new ways to extract DNA, RNA and protein sequences, and then and use that genetic information to look at evolution, phylogeny, selection and biogeography.

In the last few months, the topic of bringing back extinct animals has garnered enough attention for a TED conference and a National Geographic spread.

I’m not saying that I deserve royalties or that I even originated the idea but I remember being in eighth grade when a classmate lamented how extinct animals are gone forever.  It’s nothing I had thought about before that, but I replied: “Not necessarily.”

Dolly
Dolly’s remains at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Credit: Colin and Sarah Northway

At the time, our understanding of genetic manipulation was rudimentary. Dolly — the first successful mammal to be cloned — was not born until eight years after I had that conversation.

And in 2003 there was the first attempt to clone an extinct mammal — a Pyrenean  ibex, also called a  bucardo. Extracted nuclei of the last known specimen were injected into goat eggs. Only seven of the 57 goats became pregnant. Only one of those six goats delivered, but the bucardo that was born died shortly after birth due to malformed lungs.

Also in 2003, Poinar sequenced genomic sequences taken from the waste, known as corpolites, of the Shasta sloth. The work showed ancient DNA can be retrieved at higher temperatures. It had been thought genetic material could only extracted from specimens like that of mammoths frozen in permafrost.

But is bringing back extinct animals a good thing? “Should it be done” is asked just as much as “Can it be done?” Whether you agree with the ethical repercussions concerning bringing back extinct animals, that the science will soon be viable is exciting.

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