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A mammoth experiment

By Elena Gritzan

The last person to ever come face to face with a woolly mammoth would have lived over 3,500 years ago — but now there’s a chance you could meet one in your lifetime. Groups of scientists worldwide are working to bring extinct animals back into our modern world.

Early days

The field, called de-extinction, is still small. And don’t get too excited: no animals are being literally brought back to life. Instead, scientists are attempting to create creatures similar to their extinct cousins, using techniques like back breeding or gene editing. A closer copy of a dodo or a Tasmanian tiger could be cloned from an intact DNA sample; unfortunately for Jurassic Park fans, a usable sample is impossible to find for long-gone animals like dinosaurs.

In 2003, the first, and so far only, successful clone of a previously extinct animal was born: a Pyrenean ibex, a type of wild goat. It lived for only 10 minutes.

Moral motivation

Why bring extinct animals back? Consider woolly mammoths. They stomped across the tundra, which helped keep the permafrost cold by breaking up insulating snow cover — but now, melting permafrost adds to global warming. “This is the theory of ecological restoration,” says Britt Wray, author of 2017’s Rise of the Necrofauna. The science can inspire hope, she says, and create tools to help endangered species.

Another argument is a moral one. “Humans have made a huge hole in nature over the last 10,000 years,” says Stewart Brand, co-founder of the non-profit Revive & Restore, in a TED talk. “Now we have the ability to repair some of the damage.”

Lingering questions

Others, however, “fear that this could all be a dubious project,” says Wray, “due to the many ethical considerations involved.” For instance: would money be better spent on helping endangered animals? Have we changed enough that we wouldn’t just drive a resurrected species back into extinction?

These are all fierce debates. Yet de-extinction still captures imaginations. “People lean in to listen when they first hear about de-extinction,” says Wray, “because it suggests that ‘resurrection’ might be possible.” 

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