De-Extinction Could Bring Back 24 Different Species: Resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth

First Posted: Mar 25, 2013 11:03 AM EDT

Ever wondered what a living dodo would look like? How about a woolly mammoth or the quagga? These species are just some of the ones that could be resurrected if scientists have their way. Last week in a conference hosted by National Geographic and TEDx, scientists and conservationists discussed the possibility of creating these animals from ancient DNA. Surprisingly, many supported the idea.

Before you think that this will be a real-life rendition of "Jurassic Park," think again. Dinosaur DNA is too old in order to extract any viable samples. DNA degrades over time, which means that there's just not enough left to work with in order to reconstruct an entire organism. Instead, scientists have to limit themselves to more recently extinct species--only extinct for thousands of years rather than millions of years.

De-extinction, as it's being called, could happen for about 24 different animals. At the conference, scientists discussed the ethics of bringing back these species, and whether or not they would be desirable. The main factors that the conference-goers took into account were if they had an important ecological function, if they were beloved by humans, if they were practical choices and if there would be access to tissue with good quality DNA or germ cells in order to reproduce the species. In addition, they also assessed whether these species would be able to be reintroduced into the world, and what caused them to go extinct in the first place.

Despite the support for de-extinction, though, there are a few concerns with the process. De-extinction would require a surrogate mother for the recreated species--one that's related closely enough so that the offspring is viable. In the case of the woolly mammoth, for example, an African elephant might be used a surrogate mother. A woolly mammoth embryo would be implanted into the mother and then the mother would presumably give birth to the lost species.

Yet would it really be a woolly mammoth? It may look like one, but certain behaviors might be different. The mammoth would essentially be raised by elephants, which could mean that it acts like an elephant rather than a mammoth. In an article in The Guardian, a molecular biologist suggested there was a way to test this possible issue. Use a black rat as the "extinct" DNA donor and then use its genetic cousin, the brown rat, as the surrogate mother. If the created black rat doesn't look and behave like a black rat and instead behaves like a brown rat, scientists may need to rethink the process.

In addition to behavioral issues, the process would be extremely expensive. Creating enough individuals in order to make a viable population would be a difficult and time-consuming process that requires quite a bit of funding.

That said, bringing back species such as the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger is a tantalizing possibility. Some of the species could possibly alter ecosystems drastically--and for the better. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, they caused a trophic cascade which caused aspens to reappear along rivers, beavers to return and build dams and beaver ponds to support all kinds of new life.

It's not likely that de-extinction will occur any time soon, though. The process for resurrecting these species is still being worked on, and it could be years before any such process occurs.

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