MacArthur fellow Shapiro (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) considers the nature and prospects of “de-extinction,” the return of creatures gone the way of the dodo.
Although the author goes to great lengths to demystify the art and science of cloning, it requires access to a preserved living cell. So we can forget visions of Jurassic Park. Well, almost, for it is very likely that, eventually, we will be able to resurrect the traits and behaviors of bygone animals, if not Dolly-like replicas. However, Shapiro is quick to add, the de-extinction of, for instance, the passenger pigeon or the woolly mammoth would require not only enormous amounts of money—to both create and to monitor—but also minute attention to a mare’s-nest of needs for the animal. Consider those creatures that we didn’t kill to extinction but that disappeared as a result of habitat loss. Consider that most animals are social and would require a cohort to exist with any form of natural circumstance. There is also the question of whether it would be better to achieve the near product via selective breeding or through the highly complex process of genetic synthesis. In the case of the mammoth, writes the author, “[l]ess than 2 percent of the elephant genome would need to be edited, but 70 million changes is a lot of changes to make.” Furthermore, how would the newly created creatures fraternize with existing animals, and how would they alter the environment? As with certain forms of genetically engineered plants, we may not know the consequences until it’s too late. We also don’t want these animals to be freaks but to exist in their natural states—“the resurrection of ecological interactions”—at a time when extinction barely scratches people’s consciousness.
Extinction is still forever, writes Shapiro, but fashioning a first cousin—with all its intriguing and alarming possibilities—possessing the same behavioral quirks is within reach.