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Reviving Extinct Species May Not Be Science Fiction

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Reviving Extinct Species May Not Be Science Fiction

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Published: June 25, 2012



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan.

Wander through one of this country’s fine museums of natural history and you’ll see animals you’ll never see in a zoo: the wooly mammoth, the dodo bird, animals extinct for centuries. But for Stewart Brand extinct doesn’t mean gone forever. He’s working on a new project, “Revive and Restore,” to de-extinct animals we never thought we’d see alive.

So tell us, which animal do you think we should bring back from extinction? Give us a call: talk. We’ll also take your suggestions from the audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Environment Forum. Stewart Brand is best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, author of the book “Whole Earth Discipline.” And he joins us on stage here at Paepcke. Nice to have you with us today.

STEWART BRAND: A pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And is there really a chance to bring back the wooly mammoth?

BRAND: A good chance. What’s happening is technology is moving along, a lot of science having to do with extinction is moving along, and at least three different techniques are starting to emerge where you can work with what’s called ancient DNA or potentially with viable cells from properly frozen species, possibly including the wooly mammoth. And there’s even techniques where you can backcross basically, and there are genes extant in living cattle in Europe that might be able to take you back to the primitive cattle that used to be there.

CONAN: But where do you find the material?

BRAND: Material – the main material is what’s called ancient DNA, and it’s basically the DNA that is there in museum specimens. When you go the National History Museum and you see a mammoth, you probably see parts of a mammoth that that may well have DNA in it. We’re certainly finding mammoth meat all the time as the ice melts in Northern Siberia. They feed it to the dogs, some of the fox hunters up there. So is there a viable cells in there, is there viable sperm in there where you could clone the mammoth? Maybe. There’s about three different teams working on that.

But even if they don’t, there’s another technique that I think looks very promising where you can take even the degraded DNA, figure out exactly all of what the genome was made of and then work with a closely related living species, in this case would be the elephant, and basically, over time – and it takes years, especially with an elephant – convert the elephant into a mammoth.

CONAN: So this wouldn’t quite be a wooly mammoth but a wild-guess mammoth.

BRAND: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the great questions that’s emerging from this research is is the genome the species?


BRAND: And we’re going to find out.

CONAN: What about the dodo bird?

BRAND: The dodo bird is going to be tricky, but a group I’m working with is focusing on the passenger pigeon. It turns out the dodo was a pigeon…


BRAND: …a very big pigeon. We don’t have much pieces of it left, but the research is going forward to see if there’s enough pieces there to basically totally reconstruct its genome. And then from that, you might be able to work with other living pigeon species. I know there’s people who have plenty they would love to donate…


BRAND: …rock pigeons from the cities. And potentially, that would be the extreme case, bring back the dodo.

CONAN: Hmm. And you mentioned that the passenger pigeon, which once blackened the skies of this country as Europeans first arrived and its migrations.

BRAND: This was the most abundant bird in the world. It was thought that one out of four, maybe one of three birds in North America in the early 19th century was a passenger pigeon. It really did blacken the sky for days. There was maybe five billion birds here. And so when that went to zero in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo, when the last passenger pigeon named Martha expired – very much like Lonesome George just expired in Galapagos – a shock went through, certainly, American society. We didn’t know that could happen.

CONAN: And probably the death of Martha, the death of the passenger pigeon helped save the American buffalo, the American bison, because people realized we were running of out them, and they would go extinct like the pigeon did if we didn’t take measures.

You mentioned the bison, it didn’t go extinct and it is – well, their herds don’t thunder across the plains anymore but there’s plenty of buffalo around.

BRAND: The buffalo are back. And I think other – many, many other species that have been protected are a result of the shock of when we do loose a species, it’s such a trauma.

CONAN: But if you brought back a passenger pigeon, if you brought back a dodo or a mammoth, would it be anything other than a zoo animal, the same conditions that led to its extinction, presumably, still exist?

BRAND: This is what I’m trying to prepare the way against, in a way – the reason this project is called Revive and Restore is the goal is deep ecological enrichment, in this case through extinct species revival. And it’s a joint project to bring the species back to bring back the habitat that you would like the species to make a home in when they come back, and to improve the science on protecting endangered species because we’re learning what caused the extinction in the first place, partly by genomic analysis and the process of bringing species back from extinction. We’ll learn a lot about what’s causing extinction and be able head off future extinctions.

CONAN: Let’s get some callers in on the conversation. We’re going to take questions from the audience here, as well. Also emailers. talk. We’ll start with Tim. And Tim with us from Loveland, Colorado.

TIM: Yeah. Thank you very much for taking my call. You guys actually just addressed my question, which is as the wild species are disappearing more rapidly from the wild, and we’re attempting to preserve them in zoos and such, what steps are being taken to preserve genetic diversity and also to make sure that the species that we’re preserving is actually the wild animal that we’re hoping to protect? As in – if we’re looking at a tiger in a zoo, you know, it may looked like a tiger, but it’s very often not allowed to act like a tiger. And how are we assured that that is actually the species that we’re looking at?

BRAND: Well, this is the question: Is the genome the species? And your previous guest, Edward O. Wilson, showed that quite a lot more genomic influence is behind behavior and everything else than we thought. To a larger extent than we used to think, the genome is the species. Some species depend a lot on the nature of the – their upbringing. Are they in the wild? Do their parents know anything about how to live in the wild, teach those processes?

One of the reasons the passenger pigeon looks like a fairly tractable species to work with is it had terrible parents who abandoned them at the age of two weeks. And then, basically the birds had to use their genes to figure out how to be a passenger pigeon.

This is not the case with tigers. It was not the case with the California condor, which was brought back from just 22 specimens left – living birds left – and is now back to 400, half of them living in the wild. One of the things that I’ve loved learning in the course of this project is the really high quality and sophistication of genetic research and work going on in these captive breeding programs in the zoos. Those guys are ahead of the game.

CONAN: Emailer – this is from Matthew, who says: We should start by bringing back the most recently extinct, like the Galapagos tortoise that went extinct over the weekend. Lonesome George, obviously, they tried to breed him with a very close species. That didn’t work and it suggests the difficulties here.

BRAND: My guess is if they want to bear down on the Galapagos tortoise, they’ll probably can. I’ll bet anything that they did, you know, put parts of Lonesome George into nitrogen right away and froze him in a proper way so there are viable cells from that animal, and they can work with those, probably in cloning mode.

CONAN: Here’s another email. This one is from Steve Haye(ph) in Modesto: The Western black rhinoceros, which went extinct in the wild last November. And again, do you suspect the same kind of genetic preservation went on?

BRAND: One hopes. There’s already been one extinct species brought back briefly. This was the Pyrenees mountains in Southern France and Spain had a wonderful ibex called the bucardo. It went extinct in 2000. They froze some of its tissue in the proper way. Put a lot of effort into cloning it, much the same as with Dolly the sheep and got one success. It was only a partial success. They brought back a complete ibex. It lived for, I think, about seven minutes. It had a lung and breathing problem, which is often the case with a cloned animal. But we have already brought back, first time – they’ll be further efforts – one extinct species. There’s more to come.

CONAN: Let’s go next to – this is Joe. Joe calling us from Portland.

JOE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You’re on the air.

JOE: And thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOE: Here is one.


JOE: We were so – modern men were so mean to the Neanderthal. What about giving them another chance?


JOE: They like that.


BRAND: This is going to be discussed for decades, yeah. Right now, it’s against the law to clone a human or I assume, anybody in the genus Homo. So this will be a matter of discussion rather than a practice for a while. But on the other hand, the techniques and the technology are moving so rapidly that I think we will see semi-amateur de-extinction happening within the decade or so. And some people, no doubt, with or without proper approval will try some pretty radical de-extinctions. That might be one of them.

CONAN: Is the technology that advanced that amateurs could do this?

BRAND: Not yet. But the technology is advancing about four times faster than Moore’s law is taking computer technology forward, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Basically, the ability to read and write genomes is improving about eight fold every year now. That means going down in cost, up in smarts(ph) and up and up in sophistication. The techniques are keeping up with the technology. They’re taking on more and more interesting challenges. Many of them will affect human health obviously, and that tends to bring in money and maybe as a byproduct, we can get some of the supplied to basically helping restore natural systems with some of the species that we usually were responsible for removing from those systems.

CONAN: Suggesting also that, yes, biologists and other kinds of scientists are going to involved, but so are your lawyers.

BRAND: Oh, yeah. And this is – part of what I think we’re trying to do with Revive and Restore is be sure that the technical people who are taking on these nearly impossible, maybe totally impossible projects are in the same room with the ecologist. Ed Wilson is joining us in this effort, in the same room with the lawyers, in the same room with the bioethicists. They are all sort of involved in this. So it all – there is a set of understandings of norms that emerge in the next few years. So even when amateurs get into the game, everybody will understand what is good behavior and bad behavior in this domain.

CONAN: We’re talking with Stewart Brand about de-extinction. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let’s go next to Mike, and he’s up on the mic here at the Paepcke Auditorium.

WILL: So as what Brand was saying.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me. You’re name is Will(ph) . I thought…

WILL: Oh, yeah, Will.

CONAN: Go ahead.

WILL: As Stewart Brand was saying, things like Moore’s law, you know, dictate this exponential growth of technology. So what happens in 50 years when these synthetic biology communities are able to, you know, produce these species as well as private entities? Even though there is legislation and bioethicists, I’m not sure that everybody’s going to do the right thing. So how are you going to stop that?

BRAND: I think you’ll be surprised. I’ve seen something similar. I’ve been involved with computer hacking from the start back when. In fact, my wife, Ryan Phelan, and I helped organized a conference on computer hacking. And in a sense, this is a form of rather more legitimate bio-hacking that we’re talking here. But they’ll be illegitimate coming along. Once an (unintelligible) emerge, people keep each other honest because they keep an eye on each other. And so the vigilance – grassroots vigilance is, I think, what we want to see come into existence here, and that’s part of why I’m bringing up the subject early before we have any seriously de-extincted species walking among us, though we have time to think about it.

This is going to take decades. There’s a reason it’s part of the Long Now Foundation, which thinks in terms of the next 10,000 years and the last 10,000 years. That’s the time of frame – timeframe to think about extinction and de-extinction, and that full system helped.

CONAN: For those who don’t know, Stewart Brand was among those first thinking about these kinds of questions regarding computer technology and where that would lead us. But getting back to species, here’s an email from Lea: I’d like to see the Baiji river dolphin come back from extinction. Any work on that?

BRAND: Is that the Chinese river dolphin that just recently went extinct?

CONAN: I believe. Yeah, fresh water dolphin. Yes.

BRAND: I would say chances are good, especially if they got good frozen tissue, because there’s other dolphins you can work with. Lots of times, a really endangered species that’s being hunted to death, all you got to do is stop killing it. This happened with the elephant seal in California. Everybody thought they were gone. Turned out there was one island where there are a few left. We stopped killing them, and now they’re back strong in the West Coast.

CONAN: Let’s see if we go next to John, John with us from Evergreen, Colorado.

JOHN: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: My question actually relates to the young man that just stepped up to the microphone there, and this is for the same gentleman on the stage there. Has nobody taken to the extreme of thinking, yeah, bioethicists are great and, you know, having legal input in there, that’s great too. But isn’t this going to end up “Jurassic Park,” kind of, inevitably?

BRAND: Well, “Jurassic Park” was fiction, and people have looked actually in the amber to see if there’s any good dinosaur genes in the mosquitoes. And so far, it hasn’t showed up.

JOHN: Good.

BRAND: So we may well be seeing that…


CONAN: What…

BRAND: Yeah, but, you know, you’re just disappointing a whole lot of nine-year-old boys.


CONAN: And a whole velociraptors who are pretty hungry.

BRAND: Well, you know, it’s a movie, so, you know, we didn’t see the really cuddly dinosaurs, the vegetarians very much. We got the velociraptor. You know, it’s a really neat movie, and it does help people think ahead as you want good storytelling to do. And it’s the sense what I’m doing here. But it is the case that quite a lot of species, there is none of their DNA left. And they are at this new level of extinction of they’re well and truly gone. It is the case with the passenger pigeon that it is nearly extinct. All we have is a thousand or so museum specimens that has pretty torn up DNA in it.

And there’s this remote chance to bounce off of that and bring this amazing bird – it’s a beautiful bird – bring it back into the deciduous forest and use that as a way to encourage everybody to plant American chestnut trees, which are now making a comeback. And so, the Eastern deciduous forest is ready for the passenger pigeons when they show up looking for nuts.

CONAN: Let’s go out – thanks very much for the call and – John, appreciate it. And let’s – one last email. This is from Jonathan in Shreveport: The Tasmanian tiger?

BRAND: Ah, the Tasmanian tiger. There’s efforts on the Tasmanian tiger. Some genes from the Tasmanian tiger have been brought back to life and expressed in laboratory mice. We have pretty good genome for that.

CONAN: Must be some tough mouse.


BRAND: Life for a lab mouse is tough.


CONAN: Stewart Brand, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have, but thank you very much for being with us today.


CONAN: Stewart Brand, author of the “Whole Earth Discipline.” He joined us here in Aspen today. Tomorrow, three writers from the Middle East about stories and jokes that illustrate the latest changes taking place there. Join us for that. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in the Aspen Environment Forum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.


Written by vaphc

June 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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