Science Today sat down with the Academy's Jack Dumbacher—who also acts as scientific advisor to the Long Now Foundation—for a closer look at "de-extinction."
Where does the process currently stand?
The Long Now Foundation has assembled a team of scientists to tackle different aspects of this project. Graduate student Ben Novak, working in Beth Shapiro’s lab at UC Santa Cruz, is refining the sequencing of the passenger pigeon genome from museum specimens. The genome of the band-tailed pigeon (the closest living relative) is also being sequenced.
Once the genomes are assembled, what happens next?
You have to compare the genomes to determine which stretches of DNA make a passenger pigeon a passenger pigeon. Then you take the genome of a band-tailed pigeon and convert those important stretches of DNA into passenger pigeon DNA. George Church’s lab at Harvard is working on ways to do this using “CRISPR” technology—using bacterial proteins to genetically engineer specific DNA sequences and direct mutations to occur in a predictable way.
Let’s say scientists successfully get this DNA into an embryo, and the embryo becomes a chick. Is it a true passenger pigeon?
That’s the big challenge. It may still have some band-tailed pigeon DNA. And you have to think about its behavior. How will it learn to be a passenger pigeon, find food, and avoid predators? Teams of researchers are tackling these numerous considerations and challenges.
Some might say that extinct animals went extinct for a reason, and bringing them back isn't a good idea. How would you respond?
Animals like the passenger pigeon and moa went extinct due to human activity. So going extinct “for a reason” was humans to begin with. Also, developing the technology to successfully de-extinct an animal would itself be an intellectual coup, one that might have unforeseen benefits. The technology could be useful in other aspects of life, like agriculture, animal husbandry, conservation of endangered species, and, potentially, even human health. Think of the Space Race and all the accompanying benefits to society that resulted from that fundamental scientific research and development.
What other ethical concerns have come up?
The ideal goal is to release de-extincted passenger pigeons back into their native habitat. But you have to be careful not to harm any other species whose survival may be on the brink. Their original ecosystem (the forests of the eastern and central U.S.) has changed. You don’t want to upset the balance in a way that threatens additional species. But the idea of restoring a habitat with native species is not a new one. Biologists restore habitats all the time. Had the pigeon survived only in captivity, we would be excited to be able to re-release it. Having survived only in our freezers or museum drawers, is that so different?
How many years away are we from seeing a real, live passenger pigeon?
Optimistically, I would be very excited if this could happen in the next five to ten years. If not, I am confident that some day, we will have the technology to do this. Now is a good time to start thinking critically about what such a technology and ability would mean.