Demystifying De-Extinction


By Christina Phillis

De-extinction, the process of bringing an extinct species back to life, sounds a little like Frankenstein or better yet a real-life version of Jurassic Park. But the comparisons stop there, as scientists are getting closer than ever before to making this a reality.

Can It Be Done?

One attempt starts with the last living Bucardo Goat in the world, Celia. After her death, a team of scientists took nuclei from Celia’s cells and injected them into goat eggs that had their DNA removed. Of the 57 surrogate mothers, only one goat successfully became pregnant with a clone of Celia. However, complications caused the baby clone to die only 10 minutes after being brought back from extinction.

That was in 2003. Since then, scientists have been turning to new technologies to reconstruct DNA that once was. The next animal up for deextinction is the Passenger Pigeon. Through Next Generation Sequencing scientists determined that the Band-Tailed Pigeon is its closest living relative. The fragments of available DNA for the Passenger Pigeon don’t amount to much on their own, but using the Band-Tailed Pigeon’s genome as a map, they hope to fill in some of the blanks using Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering.

Once the genome is completed, bringing the Passenger Pigeon back to life would require complex maneuvering. First, germ cells, generated by Rock Pigeon’s stem cells containing the completed genome, would need to be injected into Rock Pigeons. The first squabs to hatch after these birds mated would be normal Rock Pigeons, but they would carry eggs and sperm with altered DNA. After the first squabs mated, their offspring would carry traits of the Passenger Pigeon. Scientists could continue to inbreed these birds with other species until they were more and more like the Passenger Pigeon.

Should It Be Done?

Although technology and science seem to have caught up with fantasy, certain experts ask if this is nothing but a waste of time and resources. Some ask if we should instead be focusing our efforts on preserving endangered species. Another concern is the harm to existing species that may result from introducing a genetically engineered organism, which may carry diseases or viruses, into our environment.

Advocates for de-extinction argue that genomic engineering technologies currently under development for de-extinction could help to preserve species that are endangered. Additionally, they believe that the biodiversity seen in nature can help lead to invention. It already has with pharmaceuticals that were derived from the natural compounds found in wild plant species.

As the debate continues, scientists are still making progress. In 2015, scientists were able to sequence the entire genome of a Woolly Mammoth, piquing our curiosity once again about this strange science. Bringing a species back to life may still be years away, but the science behind it continues to advance our ability to reconstruct lost genomes and manipulate stem cells.

Class Discussion

  • Discuss the pros and cons of bringing animals back from extinction. Research other extinct species and pair them with closely related species.