When Audubon reached Louisville before sunset, the pigeons were still passing overhead—and continued to do so for the next three days. Multitudes were thus destroyed. In it would have been hard to imagine a species less likely to become extinct. Yet by the end of the century the red-breasted passenger pigeon was in catastrophic decline, the forests it depended upon shrinking, and its numbers dwindling from relentless hunting. In the last confirmed wild bird was shot by a boy with a BB gun.
Fourteen years later, just a century and a year after Audubon marveled at their abundance, the one remaining captive passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Two years ago Brand and his wife, Ryan Phelan, founder of the genetic-testing company DNA Direct, began to wonder if it might be possible to bring the species back to life. One night over dinner with Harvard biologist George Church, a master at manipulating DNA, they discovered that he was thinking along the same lines. But he could envision a different way of re-creating the bird.
Preserved specimens contain fragments of DNA.
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By piecing together the fragments, scientists can now read the roughly one billion letters in the passenger pigeon genome. He could theoretically manufacture genes for passenger pigeon traits—a gene for its long tail, for example—and splice them into the genome of a stem cell from a common rock pigeon.
Rock pigeon stem cells containing this doctored genome could be transformed into germ cells, the precursors to eggs and sperm. Squabs hatched from these eggs would look like normal rock pigeons—but they would be carrying eggs and sperm loaded with doctored DNA.
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When the squabs reached maturity and mated, their eggs would hatch squabs carrying unique passenger pigeon traits. These birds could then be further interbred, the scientists selecting for birds that were more and more like the vanished species. Saber-Toothed cats Smilodon fatalis went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction.
So even if the Sooam team fails to find an intact mammoth nucleus, someone might still bring the species back. Scientists already have the technology for reconstructing most of the genes it takes to make a mammoth, which could be inserted into an elephant stem cell. And there is no shortage of raw material for further experiments emerging from the Siberian permafrost.
Though the revival of a mammoth or a passenger pigeon is no longer mere fantasy, the reality is still years away. For another extinct species, the time frame may be much shorter. The animal in question is the obsession of a group of Australian scientists led by Michael Archer, who call their endeavor the Lazarus Project. Archer previously directed a highly publicized attempt to clone the thylacine, an iconic marsupial carnivore that went extinct in the s.
Wary of the feverish expectations that such high-profile experiments attract, Archer and his Lazarus Project collaborators kept quiet about their efforts until they had some preliminary results to offer. That time has come. Early in January, Archer and his colleagues revealed that they were trying to revive two closely related species of Australian frog. Until their disappearance in the mids, the species shared a unique—and utterly astonishing—method of reproduction. The female frogs released a cloud of eggs, which the males fertilized, whereupon the females swallowed the eggs whole.
A hormone in the eggs triggered the female to stop making stomach acid; her stomach, in effect, became a womb. A few weeks later the female opened her mouth and regurgitated her fully formed babies. This miraculous reproductive feat gave the frogs their common names: the northern Rheobatrachus vitellinus and southern Rheobatrachus silus gastric brooding frogs. Unfortunately, not long after researchers began to study the species, they vanished. To bring the frogs back, the project scientists are using state-of-the-art cloning methods to introduce gastric brooding frog nuclei into eggs of living Australian marsh frogs and barred frogs that have had their own genetic material removed.
The scientists need fresh eggs, which the frogs produce only once a year, during their short breeding season. The great auk Pinguinis impennis was the penguin of the Northern Hemisphere, a flightless goose-size bird that dove into the North Atlantic to feed on fish and other prey.
When it waddled onto the shores of rocky islands to breed, it was helpless against sailors who killed the great auk for food. The last pair ever recorded lived on the island of Eldey, near Iceland. On June 3, , sailors clubbed them to death, and the great auk has never been seen alive since. But does that mean we should bring them back? Would the world be that much richer for having female frogs that grow little frogs in their stomachs?
There are tangible benefits, French argues, such as the insights the frogs might be able to provide about reproduction—insights that might someday lead to treatments for pregnant women who have trouble carrying babies to term.
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But for many scientists, de-extinction is a distraction from the pressing work required to stave off mass extinctions. Why invest millions of dollars in bringing a handful of species back from the dead, when there are millions still waiting to be discovered, described, and protected? But what would we be willing to call salvation?
Even if Church and his colleagues manage to retrofit every passenger pigeon—specific trait into a rock pigeon, would the resulting creature truly be a passenger pigeon or just an engineered curiosity? Would it be enough to keep a population of the frogs in a lab or perhaps in a zoo, where people could gawk at it? Or would it need to be introduced back into the wild to be truly de-extinct?
A huge effort went into restoring the Arabian oryx to the wild, for example. But after the animals were returned to a refuge in central Oman in , almost all were wiped out by poachers.
Hunting is not the only threat that would face recovered species. The Chinese river dolphin became extinct due to pollution and other pressures from the human population on the Yangtze River.
Things are just as bad there today. Around the world frogs are getting decimated by a human-spread pathogen called the chytrid fungus. Preservation campaigners have praised the Government for its actions in securing the future of numbers 14 to 17, but some have voiced concerns about development proposals for adjoining houses.
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