Such methods may help resurrect recently departed species, but it will be all but impossible to find tissues with intact nuclei for long-gone species. To resurrect these species, scientists plan to use the extinct organism’s genetic code as a blueprint. That became feasible in 2005 when the first commercial next-generation (next-gen) DNA sequencing machines became available. “This is what we had been waiting for,” says Hendrik. Today, next-gen sequencing allows scientists to sequence an entire human genome in hours for less than $1,000, far faster and cheaper than ever before. And the same technology enables researchers to uncover the genetic blueprint of an extinct animal.
To turn that blueprint into a living organism, scientists will also need a surrogate mother. A modern relative is the best bet. Beth Shapiro, an ancient DNA researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is using the band-tailed pigeon genome as a guide to piece together a draft passenger pigeon genome. Ben Novak, a biologist funded by Revive & Restore, the nonprofit group Brand established, will use that blueprint to try to revive the extinct bird. So far, Shapiro and Novak have amassed 88 passenger pigeon samples from museum collections, but it will be a long, hard slog to determine which genes distinguish a passenger pigeon from a rock pigeon, and what the genes do, Shapiro says.
It’s the woolly mammoth that’s probably the furthest along toward de-extinction. Hendrik plans to publish the most complete woolly mammoth genome yet, and George Church’s team at Harvard is already introducing specific DNA variants — genes for hair, tusks, subcutaneous fat and cold resistance in blood — into cultured cells from Asian elephants, with the goal of preparing the rebuilt mammoths for life on the tundra. But even making an elephant whose genes are 9 percent mammoth might take 20 years, and we may never re-create an exact duplicate of the extinct species, Church says.
Because it’s so hard to replace all the genes that make a woolly mammoth — or a passenger pigeon or dodo or Steller’s sea cow — a unique species, the re-created animals won’t be exactly what went extinct. Some will be clones, like the baby Pyrenean ibex. Some could be genetically engineered hybrids. Others will likely be wholly synthesized — new beasts altogether.
Taking Secrets to the Stage
In March 2013, 30 years after the only Extinct DNA Study Group meeting, Hendrik strolled onstage before a standing-room-only crowd at the TEDx conference on de-extinction in Washington, D.C. With an image of an amber-ensconced insect from Jurassic Park on a giant screen behind him, Hendrik described how he and his father used to imagine long-gone insects waking up and crawling out of the resin. He described how the woolly mammoth disappeared, like 99 percent of all animals ever to walk the Earth, then he walked the audience through the steps needed to resurrect one. But he ended on a cautionary note: “I have to admit that part of the child in me would love to see these creatures walk across the permafrost, but part of the adult in me wonders whether we should.”
In the past, scientists played their cards close to the vest as they developed, then commercialized, powerful new technologies. Often, they were sure that what was best for the science was best for society. And time after time, their secrecy and paternalism fed fears that sparked a public backlash — over technologies as diverse as test-tube babies, cloned animals like Dolly the sheep and genetically modified organisms. “The reason we’re in this situation with [the backlash against] genetically modified organisms is because we didn’t talk about it clearly enough, early enough,” Church says.
The TEDx conference, which was organized by Stewart Brand and his wife, genomics entrepreneur Ryan Phelan, represented a historic break from that tradition — a high-profile bid to convince the public that de-extinction was feasible and worth doing. Proponents like Church contended that the herbivorous woolly mammoths could help preserve essential carbon-storing grasslands in the Arctic north, while Brand made the case that resurrecting species would atone for human-caused extinctions.
Hendrik and Ross MacPhee, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, pushed successfully to include philosophers, historians and ethicists at the conference to weigh the promise and the perils of de-extinction. The fact that humans will effectively be creating organisms that could never have existed before is a terrifying prospect, says MacPhee. “It’s Brave New World
It’s been nearly two years since that conference, and no extinct animals have yet been resurrected. This buys us all time to discuss, publicly and openly, the impacts of such life-altering endeavors, Hendrik says. There’s time to consider whether bringing back ancient animals might cause them to suffer, release dormant diseases or harm today’s already struggling species and ecosystems.
On a summer afternoon, an unfinished Yahtzee game is evidence of the family vacation underway at George’s home on the Oregon coast. George and Hendrik take part in a favorite pastime — friendly debate. Should we resurrect extinct organisms? “Sure, if we can,” George says. Hendrik bristles, suggesting it’s just this attitude that is the problem. “It’s this idea that science marches ahead and does things just because we can,” he says.
The generation gap between father and son lays bare a subtle, but momentous, shift taking place in modern science. George and his contemporaries feared that taking their concerns public could have jeopardized their ability to move the science forward.
Hendrik and his cohorts, on the other hand, worry that a lack of transparency could foster a destructive mistrust of science that jeopardizes us all.
As Hendrik and George have shown, the discovery of ancient DNA created a de facto time machine, and new genetic technology is speeding its development. And, at least in fiction, the only thing certain about a time machine is that it will tamper with the present.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Jurassic Ark."]