Let me continue my copy of my alumni magazine, “CALIFORNIA, fall 2021”:
Starting with the toe tissue of nine specimens in the Royal Ontario Museum, a number of experts from around the world have come together to discuss the matter. “Any job we would do would never be simply reviving a species that was extinct out of curiosity; it would be about restoring an ecosystem.
The point is, humans have made a huge hole in nature over the past 10,000 years. We now have the capacity, and perhaps the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage.
When an audience was asked if they wanted the return of extinct species, applause was timid.
The professor of ecology of Santa Barbara, Douglas McCauley, heard about de-extinction for the first time, everything seemed to him theoretical at best. The entrepreneurs, rather than the scientists, seemed to control the narrative, and without a sufficiently critical lens. “It seemed like we were heading on a trajectory where we were creating quirks for zoos rather than restoring ecosystem function.” By the time McCauley’s article was published, Ed Green and his team at UC Santa Cruz had sequenced the entire genome.
To be clear, he wasn’t literally pasting pieces of DNA, but rather a digital facsimile.
Described as “Molecular scissors” CRISPR allows scientists to make very precise cuts in DNA and insert new genetic material – a tool with obvious implications for the science of de-extinction. “The concept of the big idea is that we take the genome of the strip-tailed pigeon, or a close relative,” said Green, “And little by little, in turn, transform it into a carrier pigeon. It would be like taking your Toyota and swapping parts until you have a Honda – if the Hondas were gone.
Green emphasizes an important point: rather than a true carrier pigeon, the end product of this rebirth project would be a sort of crossed-tailed passenger hybrid. Likewise, the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project plans to craft what would essentially be a hairy, cold-adapted Asian elephant.
Semantics aside, what if those Franken-animals didn’t look or behave as expected?
As Green says, “We’ll find out when we make a carrier pigeon.”
In his article, he articulates three main rules for proceeding: The species must be functionally unique and play a critical and irreplaceable role in its ecosystem. Carrier pigeons, it seems, fit this bill. As migratory birds, they have contributed to the maintenance of forests and may also have contributed to the dispersal of seeds. By breaking branches and disturbing tree tops, they have supported a diverse and constantly regenerating habitat. In its absence, native plant and animal species declined. McCauley Rule Two: The best candidates for extinction are people who are recently extinct or not even extinct.
When the homing pigeon numbered in the billions, the east coast of the United States was dominated by chestnut forests. If American chestnut trees were a major source of food for pigeons, could they survive without them. “If there’s no room for the animals, then what’s the point?” “
It is believed that restoring homing pigeons would actually be restorative, helping to reverse the cycle of habitat degradation.
McCauley’s third and final rule: candidate species must be able to reach a population large enough to actually have an impact on the ecosystem. “Can you really get them back to significant levels?” If you can’t, maybe you shouldn’t start.
It should be noted that humans do not exactly have a good track record of intervening in ecosystems. But there’s also a callback button if things get out of hand. “It’s called the hunt.”
So far, the progression to a carrier pigeon is slow and uncertain. The effort is largely unfunded and mired in the technical challenge of engineering and implanting germ cells into a viable surrogate parent. But the goal is to hatch the first generation of carrier pigeons within the next seven to twelve years. In the meantime, efforts are underway to learn more about the carrier pigeon’s natural history – where it lived, how it interacted with its environment – in order to inform best practices for breeding and eventual release.
“Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s boring science. I would be shocked if that didn’t happen. It’s far too late to start worrying about whether we’re playing God or not – we already have. And one thing we absolutely have to do differently is recognize what we’re doing and start taking responsibility. “
Susan Crossett has lived in Arkwright for over 20 years. A life of writing led to these chronicles as well as two novels. Its raison d’être was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts in 2014. Information on all thoughts, his books and the author can be found at Susancrossett.com.