It started with a species named the passenger pigeon.
Never heard of a passenger pigeon? Its okay, neither had I, a few days ago. Turns out this particular species became extinct exactly a century ago, a fact that really struck a nerve with a scientist named Stewart Brand. And when this innovator’s wheels started turning, he didn’t stop until he had achieved his goal: bringing this bird back into existence. He put together the technology his friend George Church, a molecular biologist at Harvard, had been working on— in an attempt to resurrect the wooly mammoth—and the frozen pigeon cells stored at Chicago’s Field Museum, and thus Brand assembled his very own de-extinction kit.
It’s called “paleogenomics”: the mapping of ancient genomes. Church’s focus on bringing back the wooly mammoth lead to the creation of his own technology to do that— called Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering. MAGE, also known as the “evolution machine”, uses the cut-and-paste method: you input the desired genome, put in the cells of a similar species, and the machine gets to work mixing and matching DNA base pairs until the cells are just right. From there, the cells are implanted into embryos of that similar species, and into the womb of a host. Upon birth, vua-la! An extinct species has come back into existence.
Alberto Fernandez- Arias would beg to differ. As it turns out, de-extinction is not a novel idea. A team in 2000 including Fernandez-Arias embarked on the same journey as Brand and Church, substituting the passenger pigeon for the bucardo (a type of mountain goat). A technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, used to clone the first mammal, yielded fifty-seven viable bucardo embryos. The downfall, though, happened in the final step; only one successful offspring was born, living for about five minutes before it died of a congenital lung problem.
So back to the story. Stewart Brand, his wife, and a zealous graduate student name Ben Novak teamed up at the University of California at Santa Cruz in a project named Revive & Restore, fully dedicated to the creation of the passenger pigeon. Currently, they have mapped the genome of the pigeon and are in a position to create embryos (using MAGE), but there are still hurtles to overcome. For instance, the host bird they will use, a band-tailed pigeon, has a different environment, diet, and migration habit than the passenger. The team will have to raise a set of modified pigeons, molding their behavior to fit the passenger pigeons’. This ensures that the resurrected bird will slide right into its ecological niche, disturbing nature in no way.
They may have some work ahead of them, but the Revive & Restore team is pursuing the possibility of de-extinction every day. And requests for their next project are flooding in from all over the world—species ranging from the endangered White Rhinoceros to ones that haven’t been seen for centuries, like the Auroch Ox. So maybe someday, and someday soon, you might be able to go to the zoo and see a passenger pigeon, something that hasn’t been done in 100 years.
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