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How Close Are We to Resurrecting Extinct Species?

The passenger pigeon, the gastric brooding frog, the wooly mammoth, they all have one thing in common, they’re extinct…. dead as a dodo, if you will. In fact, scientists estimate that 5 billion species have come and gone off this planet. But what if we could bring them back? What if extinction didn’t have to be a permanent thing? Right now scientists are using revolutionary new genetic techniques to try to bring back some of these species. For example the wooly mammoth could roam the Northern Tundra. It sounds like a science fiction, but it could happen. So how close are we to de-extinction? The woolly mammoth is an impressive specimen.

It was the king of the tundra for millions of years. Then it rather suspiciously disappeared around the same time that humans appeared. Most scientists think it’s likely that they were hunted to extinction. Most of the species that have gone extinct in recent years is because we destroyed the habitat, we’ve introduced species, or we’ve killed them outright, like the passenger pigeons. It was hard to imagine, at the time, that this bird species that’s so abundant could actually be hunted to extinction. But we managed to do that. The dinosaurs are so old, that all those chemicals, have been turned to rock.

There’s no source of DNA that we have right now for dinosaurs, There’s no way that we could create a dinosaur, because we don’t know what it’s genome looked like. We can’t get dinosaur DNA so no Jurassic Park on the bench, but we can get DNA dating from tissue and fossils from organisms from 10,000 years ago to 100,000 years ago so the woolly mammoth is an active project. That’s right. The wooly mammoth could be a thing again! Mammoths are very different than dinosaurs because scientists are able to go up to the Arctic, and find thawing chunks of earth that still have frozen mammoths in them and those have DNA. And that‘s where scientist are going to get the DNA from the mammoth in order to reconstruct its genome. That’s why mammoths are different than dinosaurs, because we have that DNA. And they’re closer than you think to bringing them back.. So right now ..

There are cells dividing and living in a little Petri dish at Harvard that have mammoth mutations. We have a mammoth genome. We have mammoth habitat, we have a good motivation for doing it. We just need the filler in between who’s making the mammoth. Woah woah, Ben. We’re not quite there yet. We’ve got the DNA, but it’s not exactly perfect. DNA degrades over time, it has a half-life of about 521 years. Meaning we need to fix any mammoth DNA before we can clone it. Cloning is the closest thing we have to reviving extinct animals right now. And we’re not bad at it! Remember Dolly the sheep? Now we regularly clone cattle, pigs, camels, frogs, lab rats, and even your pet dog! Now, even with perfect DNA cloning is really hard, but they can make DNA even more perfect by editing it. The revolutionary technology that made considering de-extinction possible which also opens up all those new genetic rescue capabilities is what’s known as precise genome editing.

It’s using things like CRISPR Cas9, or talens, or megaTALs. In case you haven’t heard of it, CRISPR Cas9 is an editing tool for DNA. It’s able to go through millions of strands of DNA, locate a specific genome and remove or add to it. In de-extincting the Mammoth – scientists are using the DNA of an Asian Elephant and replacing parts with a mammoth’s DNA. To make a ‘mammophant’. A name I hate. So, we have cloning technology, we’ve got elephant and mammoth DNA that we can edit together, and the plan is to try to artificially inseminate an Asian Elephant mom to carry the baby. But, just because you bring back one mammoth that doesn’t mean de-extinction. De-extinction by definition, is bringing back a whole species.

And just because we can bring the wooly mammoth back … should we? I think sometimes people think about de-extinction like, oh you wouldn’t it be cool to have a passenger pigeon, or a California grizzly, or some other species? But, it’s not just about that species and it being cool. Sometimes it’s about, those species have a role in the ecosystem, which is now empty.Jack: A great example, that a lot of people are aware of, is wolves in Yellowstone…we’ve seen huge changes in the ecosystem in Yellowstone, that people are attributing to the wolves, So if we do put a mammoth back into the world, what would happen? Where would it go? What would it eat? If mammoths ate up all the grasses, what would happen to other herbivores in the Tundra? If the wolves of Yellowstone can change the course of a river, what would a herd of mammoths do? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with releasing weird, hairy Asian elephants into the tundra.

Once you have your animals, breed them up in captivity, condition them for the wild, put them back into the wild and that’s where you start getting into all of your ethical questions of whether or not we should or should not be doing this. Wooly mammoths have been extinct and one question is “has that ecosystem already become something different?” And when you put wooly mammoths back are you gonna end up having detrimental impacts on things that are living there now. there are other animals that we might bring back first. Like the humble passenger pigeon. We hunted it to extinction, and changed the forests of North America. Oak trees need the pigeon for regeneration as well as controlling the underbrush, which is a major fire hazard. If we de-extinct them we fill a hole in the ecosystem — a hole that we put there. There’s a portfolio of extinct animals that you could potentially bring back. The challenge is trying to figure out which of those is going to have the biggest positive impacts, and then working on those first.

So, in less than ten years we could de-extinct the passenger pigeon, maybe someday we’ll have Wooly mammoths roaming the tundra or even see dodo birds waddling around. How close are we to de-extinction? REALLY REALLY close. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should… You can Keep How Close Are We from going extinct too, by subscribing! Just tap the Seeker symbol. Extinction doesn’t have to be forever, but that doesn’t mean we should encourage it. Did you know the Border Wall between Mexico and the U.S. is causing extinction too? Yeah. Find out more here. And thanks a lot for watching Seeker. .

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