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Bringing extinct species back to life

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 16, 2013 09:45 AM

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Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" set an entire generation to thinking: Is it really possible to bring extinct species back to life? The answer for dinosaurs is still, sadly, no, but as an article by Carl Zimmer in this month's National Geographic explains, biologists are getting a lot closer to resurrecting a number of other animal species that have previously been wiped from the planet.

The trouble with dinosaur resurrection is that T-Rex and his friends died off too long ago and all their cells have decayed. But for more near-term extinctions, it's relatively easy to find cellular material that can serve as the basis for what researchers call "de-extinction." For example, the National Geographic article makes it sound like you can't dig anywhere in the Siberian permafrost without hitting meat locker-size pieces of wooly mammoth tissue. And the educated hope is that that tissue will serve as a seed that brings wooly mammoths back to life 10,000 years after they last walked the earth.

The process for de-extinction is roughly the same whether you're after a mammoth, a Chinese river dolphin, or a passenger pigeon (which went extinct via BB gun in 1900). First, find intact cells. Second, reprogram those cells so that they operate like an embryo. Third, implant that embryonic material in the closest surviving relative of the extinct animal and hope the pregnancy takes.

Scientists are pretty good at finding and reprogramming cells. It’s the last step that’s the hardest. In the case of the wooly mammoth, researchers from the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul and the North-Eastern Federal University in Siberia intend to insert a mammoth nucleus into an elephant egg that has been emptied of its own nucleus, and then to implant that egg back into an elephant. The only problem, as the article explains, is that no one has ever successfully harvested an egg from an elephant, let alone re-implanted one. A new mammoth may be some time off, but the article explains that a secretive lab in Australia which runs something called the Lazarus Project may have already achieved de-extinction with the quirky gastric brooding frog, which went extinct in the 1980s.

Zimmer’s article builds up a lot of enthusiasm for de-extinction but it also raises a number of serious questions that surround the research. One of the more dampening ones concerns the actual definition of de-extinction. Is it enough just to recreate an animal in a lab, or does the species have to flourish in the wild before we can really say we’ve brought it back to life? And if a species does have to flourish in the wild, what do we do in situations where a de-extinct animal’s natural habitat doesn’t really exist any more? Do we throw it into a new environment, and what may be the unintended ecological consequences of doing that?

All of this is to say that what’s true in your own life is likely true in de-extinction research: It’s relatively easy to find your old address, and much harder to really go back home.

Image of mammoth skeleton courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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