De-extinction: Bringing Back the Dodo?

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Science fiction fans and movie-goers might be counting down the days until the 3D re-release of Jurrassic Park hits theaters on April 5th, but scientists and conservationists are now counting the ways that they could make the movie’s premise – in which the DNA of dinosaurs’ blood is preserved in a mosquito fossilized in amber – come to life.

It’s called “de-extinction,” and it already happened for the first time ten years ago. 

When the last bucardo, a subspecies of the Spanish Ibex, died in 2000, it would be natural to believe that this was the end of the species. But thanks to an intrepid group of wildlife veterinarians, the DNA from the last remaining burcado, a female named Celia, had already been preserved. 

In 2003, scientists put Celia’s preserved DNA into goats’ eggs, whose DNA had been wiped, and began the arduous process of bringing an animal back from extinction. 

Once the egg had been fertilized, it was implanted into a surrogate mother , a cross-breed of a goat and a Spanish ibex – the bucardo’s close relative. The process was completed with the hope of delivering a baby clone bucardo – the birth of a ghost. 

Sadly, the baby died only ten minutes later. But, if only for a brief moment, the scientists challenged the notion that “extinction is forever.”

Now, Australian scientists who have been working on bringing back two species of frogs have revived talk of de-extinction. 

The gastric brooding frogs were unique in that they carried their developing eggs in their stomachs. Scientists announced in January that they created an embryo, spurring this secret society of real world John Hammonds and Dr. Alan Grants to come forward with their visions of Jurrasic Park.

How amazing would it be to see a herd of woolly mammoths? You could go on safari and photograph saber tooth tigers. What about extinction’s goofy spokes-species – the dodo? 

On March 16th a cultural institution charity called The Long Now Foundation organized a TEDx event to bring the techniques and ethics of de-Extinction to the forefront of public consciousness. 

Geneticists, paleobiologists, wildlife ecologists, and a “molecular paleontologist” seemed to agree that genetic manipulation – like the DNA mixing and cross breeding of the bucardo – would be the way to do it. Harvard Genetics Professor George Church introduced his CRISPR method in which one could select individual amino acids (represented by the letters AGTC) to alter a DNA chain to bring about specific traits that make the extinct species unique. Even if it appears to be just a matter of sequencing the entire genomes of these extinct species, we have a long way to go, and not everyone is on board.

Biologists and conservationists, like David Ehrenfeld of Rutgers University, believe that de-extinction would be a distraction from the battle to save species that are still here. Not all of these extinct species have a home to return to; if their extinction was due to hunting, loss of territory, disease, or pollution (like the Chinese river dolphin), why waste millions of dollars to bring them back, only to see them fall victim to the same demise? 

Ethics aside, de-extinction is an exciting thought. A theme so popular, the original release of Jurassic Park grossed gross $356,784,000 at the box office in 1993

One things the scientists did agree on at the TEDx De-extinction event, however, is that dinosaurs are not on the table. The organic material that would preserve their DNA has all broken down. As the Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology Robert Lanza says, “You can’t clone from stone.” 

But, he also gave his talk with a piece of petrified amber, so “hold on to your butts.” 

Adam Spencer is a filmmaker and journalist specializing in wildlife and conservation. He has traveled throughout South and Central America and West Africa as a volunteer, producing educational and promotional videos for non-profit organizations whose work ranges from eco-tourism, sustainable energy solutions, and education. His current film about conservation on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea features never-before-seen footage of the wild Bioko Island drill.

Find him on the web, here and here or follow him on Twitter @Spencer_adam 

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.