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Bringing the Dead (Species) Back to Life

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED March 12, 2014
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The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered. Could de-extinction techniques help keep this animal from going extinct in the first place? | Purestock/Thinkstock The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered. Could de-extinction techniques bring it back if it disappears in the wild? Or even help keep it from going extinct in the first place? | Purestock/Thinkstock

There’s been some media buzz on the topic of de-extinction. That’s the term we use to describe using science to resurrect extinct species once thought to be gone forever. In other words, it’s the plot of Jurassic Park but without the dinosaurs.

Why no dinosaurs? It’s because DNA degrades over time. Back in 2013, researchers determined that the half-life for DNA is 521 years. That means within 521 years, half the connections within a strand of a DNA will break. By 6.8 million years, there’s nothing left. The dinosaurs shuffled off this mortal coil more than 60 million years ago.

But for species that died out more recently, it’s a different story. In fact, there are already projects working to bring back various species. Back in 2003, a team of scientists attempted to clone a burcado – an extinct type of ibex. Only one baby burcado was born (by C-section) and it only survived a few minutes. While you might think it generous to call this experiment a mixed success, the truth is that it helped lay the groundwork for future efforts.

In this week’s podcast, we talk about the burcado experiment as well as others, including The Lazarus Project, which is trying to bring back an extinct species of frog that has a unique way of giving birth, and Revive & Restore, which aims to bring extinct species back while maintaining a practical point of view.

We also address how this same technology could help us save endangered (but not extinct) species, like the Sumatran tiger. And we also point out that we need to be mindful of creatures’ habitats if they are to have any chance to survive.

Here are some other great resources to check out on the subject of de-extinction:

The Mammoth Cometh” – A New York Times Magazine piece that thoroughly discusses de-extinction.

De-Extinction” – National Geographic has an entire micro site dedicated to the topic.

The Case for De-Extinction: Why We Should Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth” and the counterpoint to that argument, both from Yale, go over the pros and cons of de-extinction.

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