Determined evolutionary biologists are working to bring extinct animals back to life

The carcass of a well-preserved baby mammoth.
The carcass of a well-preserved baby mammoth.
Image: Reuters/ Siu Chiu
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No, Jurassic Park won’t become reality anytime soon. But evolutionary biologists are getting serious about bringing extinct animals back to life. Ecologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a paper on how best to select animals for de-extinction.

Dinosaurs are out because they went extinct so long ago—they’ll no longer fit into or provide benefit to the ecosystem and it’s unlikely scientists will be able to bring creatures back to life after they’ve been so long gone. But as Science points out, there’s considerable research on resurrecting the passenger pigeon, and Harvard professor of genetics George Church is leading efforts to bring back the woolly mammoth.

This work has become increasingly viable thanks to advances in genetic engineering rather than the Jurassic Park-esque notion of cloning.

Although cloning was used to resurrect the extinct Pyrenean ibex wild mountain goat in 2003, the cloned infant only survived for minutes. Cloning is also only possible for animals that went extinct very recently, with good samples of surviving cells.

Scientists are beginning to use genetic engineering to edit the genome of an existing animal to look more like its now-extinct ancestor. So an Asian elephant might have its DNA edited to allow it to be hairier and able to survive in cold climates. The question remains whether a hairy Asian element is truly a mammoth, but if the two look and behave the same, then many scientists believe that’s good enough.

Ecologist Ben Novak, who’s working to revive extinct passenger pigeons tells Science that a few genetic changes should do the trick. The closest living relative to the passenger pigeon, the band-tailed pigeon, is similar to its extinct ancestor.

“The two genomes are 97% the same. That 3% has built up over many millions of years and the majority of it is noise,” he says. “So the actual differences are much likely a smaller portion—probably within the realm of several thousand mutations. What we want to find is the key 20 or 100 mutations that affect the traits that are most important.”

Ultimately, ecologists aren’t working to revive these species for fun. Many of these now-extinct species played an important role in the ecological system and there’s hope that, in bringing them back to life, these creatures could have a beneficial impact on our environment. As long as humans don’t make them extinct a second time around, that is.