Until now, the very thought of bringing extinct species back to life only resided in the 1993 blockbuster film, “Jurassic Park.”
Now, however, it may actually be possible.
Revive & Restore, a project of the Stewart Brand’s California-based non-profit Long Now Foundation, is creating a movement around de-extinction to bring back extinct animal and plant species. For the first time in more than 300,000 years, the course of history as we know it could change forever.
R&R has been primarily focusing on bringing back the passenger pigeon, a subspecies of pigeon that thrived by the billion, but went extinct in the late 1800s.
It is also helping to restore other extinct species such as European aurochs, Pyrenean ibexes, American chestnut trees, Tasmanian tigers, California condor and even woolly mammoths.
According to Scientific American, the main reason for bringing back extinct species is to “preserve biodiversity and genetic diversity, undo harm that humans have caused in the past, restore diminished ecosystems and advance the science of preventing extinctions.”
Scientific American also says R&R expects more progress in the next decade due to the recent focus on the topic by scientists. They are working with researchers around the world to put together a list of “potentially revivable” species.
The first species they are focusing on is the passenger pigeon. The group has enlisted the help of bird experts around the world to contribute to the project. They are currently sequencing the DNA of the passenger pigeon’s nearest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon and is gathering DNA from approximately 1,500 preserved passenger pigeon specimens to complete a process known as back breeding.
Back breeding is the process of comparing the DNA of extinct species to that of a closely related existing species and then start substituting chunks of the extinct species’ DNA into the DNA of the existing species. As a result, eventually the resulting bird or animal would have enough of the extinct species’ DNA to closely resemble it.
Back breeding could also be used on humans to actually bring back Neanderthals. According to Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, “about 2 to 3 percent of human DNA seems to be relics of Neanderthal DNA, and different people have different Neanderthal DNA segments.”
Shippensburg University professor of anthropology Christine Loveland presented her views on the surreal process of back breeding.
“You would probably look for people, mostly of European descent, and then, you would select for Neanderthal DNA,” Loveland said.
However, though it may be feasible in the near future, Loveland is not at all supportive of the idea of basically bringing back cavemen in such a technologically advanced society as today.
“I might be open to a non-human species, but I’m not even 100 percent sure about that. Bringing back a species like the Neanderthal, I’m not okay with that,” she said.
“What upset me most about this was the idea of bringing back a human species that’s extinct. In a weird way, the whole concept of back breeding, it’s like a DVR, where you put it in reverse,” Loveland said.
In spite of all the skepticism and talks of ethical issues related to this subject, some scientists believe there could be some unexpected advantages to bringing back certain species. George Church, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, believes that certain extinct species brought back through back breeding could have a positive impact on nature.
“Suppose elephants could live again in the Arctic. When woolly mammoths lived in the Arctic, they would knock down trees and enable Arctic grass to flourish. Without trees, more sunlight was reflected and the ground was cooler. In winter, they would tramp down snow into the permafrost, enhancing it,” Church said.
“What is that, a woolly elephant? It would just be weird if you took old DNA and inserted it into a living species. Then, you’re altering that entire ecosystem,” Loveland said.
Moreover, the very thought of introducing a foreign animal to an unnatural habitat would also have devastating consequences on nature.
“Here in the U. S., when you get a non-native species that are introduced, and they just go wild because they don’t have any natural predators, then they’ll bring in a non-native predator and it will have totally unforeseen consequences.It’s kind of like doing a lab experiment, but you’re not in the lab,” Loveland said.
Another major problem with bringing back extinct species is the complete ignorance of the Endangered Species Act.
If extinct species were able to be brought back to life, the Endangered Species Act would no longer be effective. Hunters would continue to hunt those species brought back, along with currently existing endangered species, such as tigers, because they believe scientists would just be able to resurrect them out of extinction.