Well, we can put the dinosaur question to bed right away, because it can’t be done. Those particular animals have been extinct for more than 65 million years and there simply is no viable DNA to recover.
Dodos? Yes. The dodo is on the list of ‘Candidate Species for De-extinction’. To be a possible candidate the chosen animal must have a living genetic relative, and the dodo does have one, and a very pretty one at that – the Nicobar pigeon, seen here
Of the two main contenders for resurrection, one is large and iconic like the dinosaur – the woolly mammoth. And the other is a bird like the dodo – the great auk.
So how would it be done?
You have to start by retrieving the animal’s DNA, either from fossils in museums or from preserved tissue in permafrost. From that sample the whole genetic code is rebuilt. Enter our friend CRISPR and the DNA is edited into an embryo of its nearest living relative. (There are a couple of other methods if you want to read more)
With the mammoth (relative Asian elephant) we’re already at this stage. Next we need a mother to carry that embryo to term. Or if not a mother, at least a womb which in this case will be an artificial one.
Great auks could be edited into razorbill DNA with a mother goose as parent. Projects for ‘de-extincting’ heath hens and passenger pigeons are also on the move.
That said, it’s all – if not entirely a pipe-dream – still a long way off. Not in my lifetime anyway.
But why bother?
All projects for reviving extinct animals are being coordinated by Revive & Restore.
They are great believers in de-extinction and here’s why:
- Preserving biodiversity and genetic diversity
- Restoring ecosystems that have diminished since the animals went extinct
- Importantly, estorative justice – undoing the harm that we humans did to them in the past
- Advancing science to prevent future extinctions
An example of where de-extinction research is already proving beneficial is the American Chestnut tree. A fungus rendered it extinct in its natural environment, but the genome of lab specimens has been tweaked to make it fungus-resistant. And now it’s ready for successful reintroduction.
In March, a panel of five experts discussed an intriguing topic the recent Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in New York: if we went extinct ourselves, would it be a good idea for a superior life form to bring us humans back?
Not that we would get a say in such a scenario. But my own preemptive answer would be NO, NO, NO, bearing in mind the forces of destruction we’ve unleashed on the planet and all the other species we (don’t) share it with.
The panel’s objection to the idea was very different Their worry would be what this superior life form might do with us:
Were another intelligent life to de-extinctify humans, would they put us in a zoo-like environment? For a sentient being, that would be “extremely frightening and scary,” said panelist Greg Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. “The animal welfare concerns just get overwhelming.”
Funny how that matters for humans but not for any other sentient animals already held captive in zoos. Hard to believe an intelligent person could make such a remark and not pause to reflect on what he has just said. Come to think of it though, perhaps a zoo (where we could inflict no further harm) might be the best place to contain such a dangerous species as Homo Sapiens.
Why not to bother?
Let’s forget humans for a moment. Aside from the practical scientific difficulties, why is de-extinction problematical? There are many compelling reasons:
- If the de-extinctified animal is not a perfect copy of its forebears, could it be classified as the same species, or would we actually be playing God and creating a whole new species, a Frankenstein’s monster?
- What of failed attempts resulting in maimed, deformed, stillborn animals?
- If the animal did turn out a perfect copy, wouldn’t it immediately have to go on the endangered Red List?
- What if appropriate food sources and habitat no longer exist?
- What if the microbiota (the bacterial life within the species’ body, vital in maintaining its functioning) no longer exists and cannot be replicated?
- Alternatively what if the DNA of a virus had, unbeknownst to the de-extinctifiers, incorporated itself into the animals’ genetic code? De-extinction carries the possibility of apocalyptic fallout
- What effects might there be on present ecosystems? Another dangerous unknown
- How many animals of one species need to be de-extinctified to provide a wide enough gene pool? We know it can’t be done for dinosaurs, but even if it could, “It would take about 5,000 Velociraptors (or any dinosaur species, for that matter) to make a sustainable population with sufficient genetic diversity. “ Todd Marshall
- Where exactly does human responsibility for the revived creatures end?
- And most importantly of all to my mind, wouldn’t the money at present spent on de-extinction research, be put to better use protecting, and improving the habitat of, the huge numbers of species already at high risk of extinction?
- And, might funding de-extinction of a small number of species actually threaten the survival chances of a larger number of already existing species?
For me it’s a no-brainer, and researchers in biodiversity agree. The answer to those last two questions is a resounding Yes. In New Zealand for example, government funds at present earmarked for reviving 11 extinct species threaten to sacrifice at least 31 existing ones. The negative impact on biodiversity looks to be even greater in Australia where funding is allocated for 5 extinct species. More than 8 times that number of existing threatened species could be saved for the same money.
We’re hopelessly failing to safeguard life forms in the here and now, so is it wise to use scientific expertise and precious funding to bring back the distant dead – those that really are as dead as a dodo?
Jurassic Park? Inspired idea for a movie. Let’s just leave it where it belongs – on the silver screen.
Why We Do What We Do – Revive & Restore
Were Humans to Go Extinct Should the Species Be Revived? – LiveScience
Is It Possible to Clone a Dinosaur? – LiveScience