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Bring 'Em Back Alive: De-extincting the Extinct

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One of life's greatest ironies is that while thousands of current species are going extinct, scientists are working on bringing back extinct species and people are discussing whether to bring them back. So I started thinking about the implications of bringing back these species -- and which ones we might bring back. After all, once scientists perfect the technology, it's probably just a matter of time until we start seeing these once extinct species among us.

The irony starts with the vast numbers of species disappearing today, mainly due to human's detrimental activities, such as destroying natural habitats, spreading pollution, and hunting, leading many species to die off. As Hannah Foster notes in 2012: The Year of Extinction, "the world's biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate" and in 100 years about 10,000 species went extinct. At the same time, the threat of extinction is huge -- about a third of all amphibians, nearly half of all turtles and tortoises, a fourth of all mammals, and one in eight birds.

Yet, against this huge demise of current species, there is work on bringing back some species -- even ones many thousands of years old, such as the woolly mammoth, and other species are even older, dating back to 200,000 years. As long as scientists can get intact DNA, the bring back is possible, though one obvious question in the face of such huge modern-day extinctions, is why not do more to save current species, rather than bring back extinct ones. Another big questions is if extinct animals are brought back, where will we put them. If the living animals are going extinct because they are losing their environments, succumbing to pollution, or being hunted down, what's to protect the formerly extinct animals suddenly brought into such a toxic world.

But putting aside such comparative questions about extinct versus non-extinct animals, how likely are scientists to bring back 'em back alive? The research process started in 1996, when researchers created Dolly the sheep, which showed that mammals could be cloned from cells in a lab, as Alan Boyle, NBC science news editor pointed out in an article on a TED forum debate on whether we should bring back ancient species. Additional progress to bring back extinct animals was made in 2003, when Spanish and French scientists briefly brought back the Pyrenean ibex by cloning cells from the last known ibex, though it only lived for about 10 minutes after it was born.

But since then new DNA sequencing and gene splicing technologies have made reviving extinct animals much more likely. For example, as described by Megan Gannon, LiveScience.com news editor, scientists in Russia and South Korea are now working on creating a living woolly mammoth, a relative of elephant, which disappeared about 3000 to 10,000 years ago. After finding some very well-preserved remains in the Siberian permafrost, they have been working on creating a living mammoth by taking a DNA nucleus from a mammoth cell and implanting it into an Asian elephant egg.

Meanwhile, a team including Harvard genetics expert George Church is working on bringing back the passenger pigeon by incorporating the genes for certain traits into the genome of a common rock pigeon. And still other researchers have taken the DNA from a 100-year old specimen of a Tasmanian tiger preserved at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia and inserted it into mice embryos which survived.

So it is apt to be just a matter of time before scientists can bring back these ancient species, once they have their DNA -- and increasingly scientists have obtained the DNA for older and older species through improved extraction techniques. So now this research raises the question. Which animals should come back? What will happen to them once they get here? And if it is possible bring back animals, how about our ancient ancestors? Perhaps we could even bring back clones of ancient Bronze and Ice Age peoples; of early cro-magnon peoples; of Neanderthals; and maybe even earlier to the time of homo habilis and homo erectus.

The possibilities are fascinating, and I even wrote a script about the subject, The New Child, with a trailer on YouTube. The film tells the story of an archaeologist and his wife who can't have a child, so he uses DNA from a 15,000 year old skeleton he discovers in Mexico. With the help of a scientist friend and surrogate mother, they create a child which he and his wife raise as their own. But the child grows up wilder and wilder, leading to a media frenzy and other unexpected results.

So what could happen once scientists start de-extincting the extinct? Some proponents, such as Stewart Brand, co-founder and president of the Long Now Foundation, which is creating a 10,000 year old clock, argue that it would be a great to do this to preserve biodiversity, restore diminished ecosystems, advance the science of preventing extinctions, and undo the past harms humans have caused.

Still others, like Stuart Pimm, chair of conservation ecology at Duke University think we should concentrate on saving species that are still alive, since millions of species are at risk of extinction and bringing back species raises many practical questions, such as where to put them. True, but think of the scientific possibilities, and just as humans have always adjusted to change, such as the modern day global upheavals resulting in find a new place for millions of uprooted individuals, why can't we adjust to the few newly introduced animals, and yes, even ancient humans. Then, if they successfully reproduce to create dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of their progeny, we can find a place for them, too. And it would be a great opportunity to learn from our past. In fact, given the tumultuous times we live in, perhaps it might be instructive to learn from once extinct animals and our very ancient ancestors.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings