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Uncommon Descent Contest Question 11: Can biotechnology bring back extinct animals?

This one’s a bit of fun, but there is a serious purpose behind it.

Note: Winners announced here.

In “A Life of Its Own: Where will synthetic biology lead us?” (September 28, 2009 New Yorker mag), Michael Specter reports, “If the science truly succeeds, it will make it possible to supplant the world created by Darwinian evolution with one created by us.”

Jurassic Park, anyone? Consider this:

… researchers have now resurrected the DNA of the Tasmanian tiger, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, which has been extinct for more than seventy years. In 2008, scientists from the University of Melbourne and the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, extracted DNA from tissue that had been preserved in the Museum Victoria, in Melbourne. They took a fragment of DNA that controlled the production of a collagen gene from the tiger and inserted it into a mouse embryo. The DNA switched on just the right gene, and the embryo began to churn out collagen. That marked the first time that any material from an extinct creature other than a virus has functioned inside a living organism.

It will not be the last. A team from Pennsylvania State University, working with hair samples from two woolly mammoths—one of them sixty thousand years old and the other eighteen thousand—has tentatively figured out how to modify that DNA and place it inside an elephant’s egg. The mammoth could then be brought to term in an elephant mother. “There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth—a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. Rex.,” the Times editorialized soon after the discovery was announced. “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.”

The article discusses both the promise and the peril or reengineering nature.

Personally, I am a bit skeptical that an extinct creature can be resurrected from DNA alone, but … wait! What I thought was passing traffic turned out to be a herd of tyrannosaurs heading off to eat the McDonalds.

So now to Uncommon Descent Contest Question 11: For a free copy of Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009), how likely do you think biotechnologists will be in bringing back the Tasmanian wolf or the woolly mammoth? You can try the tyrannosaur too if you are feeling ambitious.

Here are the contest rules, not an extensive read. (Note: I am sometimes a bit behind judging; sorry about that. I put a note in my task journal and it bugs me every day. That’s enough punishment, I think.)

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12 Responses to Uncommon Descent Contest Question 11: Can biotechnology bring back extinct animals?

  1. Only a zealot cannot see that Darwinian evolution is false. Undirected genomic chances fixed by natural selection cannot explain biodiversity.

    Now, if you add a designer, then evolution can work. Of course, once you add a designer, evolution is no longer necessary.

  2. Actuall not my opinion but one I fully agree with. In order to re-create tasmanian wolf DNA is insufficient. You need something that can read it, interpret it. And this is a mother cell, zygote. We do not have it.

    http://cadra.wordpress.com

    btw I wonder if Overwhelming Evidence is still working and run by a darwinian admin who banned John Davison and me, but politely invited darwinists from the dungeon AtBC.

  3. While it might be fun to actually see a wooly mammoth or a Tasmanian tiger, the underlying question behind biotechnology’s wanting to resurrect these animals must be, “Why?”

    Really, what purpose would it serve? “We did it because we could” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. It makes me think of one of the best lines from the original Jurassic Park film, delivered by actor Jeff Goldblum who played a character named Ian, a self-described ‘chaotician’: “They didn’t stop to think if they should.”

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you automatically have to do it. True power comes from knowing that you can, but you don’t, perhaps for ethical or moral reasons.

    I don’t begrudge science its great strides in understanding our world. However, given the host of problems we now face, isn’t there something more important that scientists could be working on?

  4. MeganC, would you care to explain what you mean by a talking donkey?

    If you mean the passage in Numbers in the Bible, it wasn’t the donkey that was talking but the Angel of the Lord who spoke FOR the donkey the very foolish and wicked man was abusing, warning him as an alternative to destroying him.

    Have unicorns ever existed?

    Have you anything to say about resurrecting extinct animals via biotechnology?

    Be cautious that you are not wasting this list’s time.

  5. If you mean the passage in Numbers in the Bible, it wasn’t the donkey that was talking but the Angel of the Lord who spoke FOR the donkey the very foolish and wicked man was abusing

    Wrong. It is clear in Scripture that is the donkey who speaks by divine intervention, and not the Angel of the Lord who speaks on the donkey’s behalf. Numbers chapter 22:
    26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
    27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
    28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
    29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
    30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?

  6. O’Leary,

    “If you mean the passage in Numbers in the Bible, it wasn’t the donkey that was talking but the Angel of the Lord who spoke FOR the donkey the very foolish and wicked man was abusing, warning him as an alternative to destroying him.”

    Sounds like another ‘just-so’ story to me…but seriously, does it matter if it was a talking donkey, angel, cabbage…Tupperware (r)?

    Anyways, StephenB & others explained how the donkey talked in the other thread…so have a go at them then.

    “Have unicorns ever existed?”

    According o the Bible, yes.

    “Have you anything to say about resurrecting extinct animals via biotechnology?”

    It’s an interesting concept and a worthwhile research project, but I would rather invest in preserving our current biological diversity, reducing population growth and limiting climate change (all related actually).

  7. Extinct life forms have already been recreated, but in the viral domain. Scientists at the CDC did resurrect the 1918 spanish flu virus that killed some 50 to 100 million people. The scientists have been heavily critizised for this.

  8. Mrs O’Leary,

    [H]ow likely do you think biotechnologists will be in bringing back the Tasmanian wolf or the woolly mammoth?

    In the case of the Tasmanian wolf, I think that biotechnology will eventually be successful in bringing this animal back to life.

    On a technical level, this may involve learning how to extract mitochondrial DNA as well as nuclear DNA. It may involve examination of preserved tissues to search for epigenetic clues to gene activation. It may involve using a related marsupial (such as the Tasmanian Devil) as the host mother, since marsupials are born in a very undeveloped state.
    Unless we are lucky enough to find germ-line cells preserved, the process could teach us something about reviving pluripotency from an adult, differentiated cell, which may illuminate stem cell research.

    However, bringing back an individual is not the same as bringing back the species. There may be barriers to developing an interbreeding group of animals that are not exposed by producing a single animal.

    Further, there may be social or parental learning in such a complex predator, which may be hard to replicate. Is a wolf that does not know how to hunt still a wolf? Here I am afraid we do not know enough about the rearing of pups by the mother to know if we have succeeded in bring back the original animal or merely created a very close relative. This may be an interesting test of the “extended phenotype” concept. Would a Tasmanian Wolf raised by a Tasmanian Devil grow up to be a hunter or a scavenger? How much of the behavior for such an animal is encoded in the DNA, and how much is learned?

    There is something to be said for increasing the biodiversity of the planet by bringing back species which we humans had a hand in killing off. There may be other species now preserved only in museums which we could revive in the future, and re-establishing biodiversity in the wild may be important to reversing our global climate impact in the future.

  9. There are two issues here. the first is whether we can reconstruct the extinct animal’s genome (or something close to it). I don’t think this is too difficult, for some animals. For the mammoth, we have similar species, i.e. elephants, which are in the baramin, so we may be able to fill in any gaps in the sequence.

    Assuming we can assemble a full sequence, the next problem is whether we can get the animal to develop. This means putting the genome into an egg – presumably of a closely related species. This may or may not work – it depends on extra-genetic effects, like methylation and maternal signalling (e.g. in flies it’s the mother that says which side is “up”). My guess is that we will be able to find a species where this can be done (i.e. they are developmentally close enough), and that we will be able to overcome any incompatabilities. But I am not a developmental biologist, so this is a guess (or hopeless optimism).

    Another point worth bearing in mind is that having two individuals – one of each sex – would be a great benefit, as we could then let them reproduce. The offspring should be more robust, as they will have developed in the “right” environment.

  10. Denyse said “Have unicorns ever existed?”

    According to Bible unicorns DO exist.

    See http://www.answersingenesis.or.....s-in-bible for more info on that. You really should be more careful not to mock people’s beliefs, some people take this kind of thing literaly.

  11. There are just 9 ethanol-preserved examples of the Tasmanian Tiger’s (Thylacine) pouched young in the world, and my local museum holds 5 of these. From a collector’s perspective, this is a treasure trove of DNA that could hold the key to a marsupial’s resurrection after more than 70 years extinct.

    Benjamin was the name of the last captive Thylacine. A sad black-and-white short movie plays in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery showing him pacing around his small cage. An indictment on so many aspects of colonial life …

    Could Benjamin (who may have been a girl!) or one of this Thylacine’s cousins be brought back to life through the rigorous trials and skills of biotechnologists? There are many obstacles to tackle before even the science is considered, such as the cost alone that was considered to be between $60 and $80 million back in 2000. Newest estimates haven’t been forthcoming!

    But if such monies can be sourced, will it work? The ups and downs of this research, which of course is in its infancy, is plain. Excitement is easily tempered by reversals of fortune. For example, early eureka moments in thylacine cloning where claims that fine qualities of whole mitochondrial and nuclear DNA had been extracted was volte-faced when contamination by micro organisms was discovered. Although thylacine DNA was in the test tube, the majority was the spores accumulated through over 100 years of pickling preservation.

    Later, news was brought forth that masses of DNA was extricated from some of the pups and that the whole genome had been recovered. But, as becomes more obvious, the ‘big chunks’ reverted to ‘very small fragments’ and then to ‘damaged’. There seems to be a particular well-known procession passing by …

    Claims are brought forth of scientific advancement but this is assuaged by later revelations. The break through with the collagen gene from the Tiger inserted into the mouse should not be undervalued, but is the announcement more excitement and perforcing scientific grandiosity onto the public then bringing the whole picture into focus? The thylacine’s genome is estimated to be somewhere in the realm of 3.5 billion base pairs. Extraction to date was somewhere in the amount of 2000 base pairs. That is near to 0.0002 of the thylacine’s genome. There is some way to go here!

    I personally doubt the possibility of thylacine revivification but I hope to be inordinately wrong.

  12. The Jurassic Park hypothesis is an interesting dilemma for origin of biologists. As an ID advocate will immediately note, it will take designer engineering in order to pull off this task. In fact it will take both engineering and reverse engineering- in the form of charting out the original genetic information so that it can be reassembled into what it once was.

    The question of design will be answered before the attempt is ever made. Yes intelligent design is required to bring back extinct creatures. In fact it will amount to exquisite, cutting edge intelligent design. The question left though has to do with life itself. Even if we can arrange and chart its components can we actually “build life?” I think it is one thing to transplant gense from somthing that once lived into anotehr thing that is currently living- but can we actually build genes from scratch, and or use genetic material from dead life forms to recreate an extinct living creature? Can we genetically engineer a new novel creature from dead and synthetically constructed genetic material?

    Certainly this is possible in the realm of sceince fiction and RNA worlds- but it shares the similarity with Big Foot and ET/UFOs, which is that no one has ever proved that it can exist- yet.

    So it is one thing to interbreed different living things- whether that be closely related species or the genes thereof- but quite another to bring back dead things- or bring to life totally novel things.

    I think it is unlikely that they will “bring back to life” the original breeds of an extinct creature. Designing life is a deceptively tricky enterprise. Dont take my word for it though just ask the Pope of evolution Richard Dawkins how life began, I think he will confirm what I am saying.

    Out of honesty I don’t know quite enough about the cutting edge genetic and OOL research to make any claim regarding the possibility of the proverbial Tasmanian wolf for absolute certain, but I would submit, though tentitively, that Mount Improbable still is… Mt. Improbable.

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