March 15, 2013
De-Extinction – Are We There Yet?
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The idea of bringing woolly mammoths and saber tooth cats back from the dead has been a popular one, and this concept of "de-extinction" is the focus National Geographic's cover for its April issue.
Author Carl Zimmer wrote in April's National Geographic cover story about what scientists have done, and are doing to work on bringing some extinct species back from the dead. Species discussed in the feature focus on those that went extinct due to human involvement, whether through hunting or pollution.
Zimmer takes you on a journey from 2003, when Spanish and French scientists brought back a wild goat known as bucardo from extinction, but only for minutes. Bucardo remain extinct, along with a list of other animals, but scientists hope to take science fiction into science fact with the concept of "de-extinction."
"The notion of bringing vanished species back to life – some call it de-extinction – has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world," Zimmer wrote in his article Bringing Them Back To Life in the April issue of National Geographic.
One of the more popular and entertaining thoughts about de-extinction is the idea of bringing the 12,000-year-old woolly mammoth back to life. Scientists are trying to find ways to re-invent this ancient species, but the task at hand is not a simple one.
Zimmer writes that there are a few avenues scientists could take on to try and de-extinct this long-haired, elephant relative. A team of scientists led by North-Eastern Federal University of Russia said last September that they have discovered frozen wooly mammoth fragments that could contain living cells. Carl says this is one option scientists have to look at for trying to raise this species back from the dead, but it is not necessarily the most feasible. According to the feature, scientists would need these living cells in order to produce millions of cells, which could then be implanted in surrogate elephants. However, Zimmer says most scientists doubt that any living cell could have survived freezing on the open tundra.
The hope for seeing woolly mammoths thrive again one day doesn't just depend on whether living cells from the remains exist. Carl says if DNA inside an intact nucleus is well preserved enough, then it can be transferred into an elephant egg that had its own nucleus removed, which is a daunting task on its own.
Zimmer also goes into ethical questions about de-extinction, and points out that even if a species were to be brought back to life, would we be seeing the species or just a really good, scientifically engineered replica. Also, how would these species adapt to life on Earth now, and would they even be able to find a proper home to stay alive?
De-extinction is a concept that everyone loves to fantasize about, but it is one that has real, viable science to back it up. We may never see the behemoth reptiles from the Jurassic period running around an island like on Jurassic Park, but the possibility of seeing mastodons, woolly mammoths, and saber tooth cats again still remains open. There is even a greater possibility of more recently extinct species like bucardo, passenger pigeons and thylacine coming back to life. However, whether these species actually see the light of day again relies on the success of scientists and their ability to perform the exciting, and risky business of de-extinction.
Don't forget to check out the LIVE Webcast on Friday, March 15. Watch thought-provoking talks on the hows, whys, rights, and wrongs of bringing extinct species back to life.