Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=114307
Story Retrieval Date: 4/24/2014 6:30:45 PM CST
Steven W. Marcus/ExhibitEase LLC
We asked 15 people how they felt about resurrecting extinct species. Here are the top five comments:
In the additional commentary box: "When it comes to extinction, I'm pro-choice. I think a species should have the right to go extinct." -- Geoff Wallin, 33, Breckenridge, Colo., snowboard instructor
In response to "Would you ever consider being a human host during the gestation period for a Neanderthal embryo": "If the compensation where enough, I would definitely consider it. I have student loans to pay off!!!" -- Catherine Feerick, 23, Columbus, Ohio, intern for the Ohio Department of Development
In response to "How do you feel about reviving Neanderthal man:" "Neanderthal man would be uncivilized and we'd argue about his civil rights...we'd be stuck putting him up for ages." -- Andrew, 23, Chicago, Quantitative Trading developer.
In response to the same question as No. 3: "Yes! That's my new favorite extinct animal." -- Geoff Wallin, 33, Breckenridge, Colo., snowboard instructor
In response to "How much would you pay to see a Tyrannosaurus rex:" "In this economy--the same amount my grandfather gave me for Hannukah: $0." -- Ben Strauss, 22, Chicago, freelance journalist
And, of course, the quote receiving special recognition (also by Ben Strauss): "I find it quite apropos, as a young journalist, to be taking a quiz about extinct animals."
How do YOU feel about extinct species? What the chance to get your input out there? Go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=5rYxYAx9yCsr85ve7dKNhA_3d_3d and take the survey for your chance to appear on www.medillnewsservice.com!
Jurassic Park may seem like nothing more than a trek through Steven Spielberg’s wild imagination but some scientists say that resurrecting 60,000-year-old species may only be a few years away.
Scientists at Pennsylvania State University are talking about the possibility of reviving extinct species. As long as DNA specimens are a youthful 60,000 years old or less and are in good condition, scientists say they can decode an organism’s DNA sequence from something as simple as a piece of hair. Technically, an animal such as a woolly mammoth could be cloned at that point though the process isn’t feasible yet.
Stephan Schuster, a genomicist at the university, said he has already recovered about 70 percent of the woolly mammoth’s genome, or its DNA sequence, in a little less than a year.
“DNA sequencing can be done much, much faster now because technology is improving,” he said.
Schuster said he prefers to work with hair because ancient bone is at a disadvantage. Most DNA in it comes from outside contaminants, such as bacteria.
“The breakthrough was that we could easily decontaminate the hair so we could efficiently sequence the mammoth,” he said.
Eventually Schuster will compare the genome of the mammoth to the genome of the African elephant to study the evolution process. The process took about 6 million years, about the same timeframe it took humans to evolve from the last common ancestor of all primates.
“One thing you can do is compare the mammoth-elephant evolution lineage with the evolution in the primate-human lineage,” Schuster said.
Although putting the DNA pieces together could mean cloning an extinct species, Schuster said that’s not his mission. He deciphers and reads the genomes of extinct species and compares them to living animals.
“We are not actively pursuing resurrection, but resurrection may become a byproduct of what we do,” Schuster said. “When a genome is sequenced, that doesn’t mean it will jump to life.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s not for it.
Some scientists think that most species die out because their habitat no longer suits them. Shuster said it’s not always so.
“When a species goes extinct…its ecosystem and niche has been lost and it’s pointless to bring an animal back for that reason, but with the woolly mammoth that’s not true because their niche is left behind in Siberia,” Schuster said.
Schuster said the climate and vegetation in Siberia could still be suitable for a woolly mammoth. In fact, Schuster said, since the woolly mammoth became extinct, its ecosystem in Siberia has remained unoccupied.
But not all scientists are so enthusiastic.
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, said there’s no way to bring back an organism without fresh DNA.
Coyne said in order to resurrect an animal, scientists need a complete sequence of DNA. Figuring out a species’ DNA sequence is like putting together a puzzle.
“You can see what it’s related to, but bringing it back is a whole new can of worms,” he said.
Even if the mammoth genome were reconstructed, Coyne said resurrecting the mammoth is out of the question. The DNA chromosomes would be too old and degraded.
“It would be easier to do artificial selection on an elephant,” Coyne said.
It’s the condition of DNA from a dead organism that makes it so tough to reconstruct its genome, said Coyne. That’s why projects attempting to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger and the Marsupial wolf tend to fail. Even though the DNA from both species was preserved within the last century, they were stored in alcohol, which deteriorated the samples.
According to Coyne, the best way to preserve DNA is to flash freeze fresh samples in liquid nitrogen. Only then would resurrection be remotely possible.
“The best way to look at extinction is – it’s forever,” Coyne said.
While scientists may not be able to resurrect species of the past, many look toward the future.
Scientists at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans are using technology similar to Schuster’s to create embryos of endangered species while finding surrogates for gestation. The process has already been successful with an African wildcat embryo and a house cat host.
However, the difference in producing a woolly mammoth versus producing an African wildcat is that both sperm and egg samples from the African wildcat are still obtainable.
For now, Schuster is lending his efforts in Australia to help save the Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial, which got its name for its nocturnal blood-curdling screams.
“We are immediately using knowledge from the mammoth for species conservation,” Schuster said. “We sequence the genome of multiple Tasmanian devils and look for genetic diversity…. our idea is the genomic analysis we are doing can help steer breeding programs for the Tasmanian devil."
While the mammoth genome was the first extinct genome to be unraveled, many scientists are likely to follow suit. Currently, scientists are reconstructing the Neanderthal genome in Germany.
“Not too long, after 2009, you will probably read about something like that,” Schuster said. “This is where the ethical trouble starts. People immediately jump from mammoth to Neanderthal.”
Kevin Feldheim, a lab manger for the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution at the Field Museum, says he thinks the money should be used for conservation, not resurrection. At any rate, he said, resurrecting a Neanderthal is just plain wrong.
“It’s like caging a human, but the same argument could be made about chimps,” Feldheim said. “I don’t think that would be right.”
So although you probably won’t see a T. rex or a cave man walking outside your house anytime soon, you never know what you might see outside your window in the next few years.
“Bringing back dinosaurs in lower Manhattan, no, but bringing back mammoths in Siberia, I don’t have a problem with it,” Schuster said.