Scientists Publish List of Top 50 Extinct Species that could be Brought Back to Life
Once upon a time, when a species died out becoming extinct that was that, but now advances in genetics and a greater understanding of DNA could enable scientists to resurrect recently extinct species.
A list of fifty currently extinct or severely endangered species that may once again walk the Earth or at least have an ensured survival has been published in this month's edition of the “New Scientist” magazine. An apt start to the year, what with events planned to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theory on natural selection helped shaped our understanding of how life evolves.
The list includes some Ice Age giants such as the Woolly Mammoth, Sabre-Toothed Cat and Coelodonta, the Woolly Rhinoceros, plus Megaloceros (Irish Elk) and the Neanderthal, the last of whom died out some 28,000 years ago.
Animals that have gone extinct in more recent times are also included, such as the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). The last Thylacine (another name for this marsupial), died in 1936. The article also commented on the possibility of bringing back the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), a giant ground-dwelling bird related to pigeons that has become a symbol for extinction “as dead as a Dodo”.
This flightless bird was wiped out in its only habitat, the island of Mauritius within 100 years of it first being discovered, but it too could be resurrected with mankind's improved understanding of genetics.
The article stated that two main criteria were required to enable the scientists to resurrect an extinct species. Firstly, DNA of the species had to be recovered, in the case of the Dodo this would be relatively easy as mummified specimens and other preserved parts of the birds have been kept in museum collections. For example, a museum in Oxford, England, has a stuffed Dodo on display with also bones, remains of an eye, head and fragments of skin. It is from this preserved DNA that a cloning process can be started.
Secondly, a suitable host would be required to act as a surrogate mother and partial DNA donor to help complete the process. In the case of the Woolly Mammoth, the frozen carcases that are occasionally washed out of the melting permafrost in northern Russia can provide the DNA. An Indian Elephant would act as a surrogate mother, as this extant species is relatively closely related to the great extinct Mammoths.
In effect,to revive a long-dead species scientists would have to recover enough DNA from a well-preserved specimen and find a suitable surrogate species similar to that of the extinct animal in which to grow the new baby from an embryo. DNA is capable of being preserved for many thousands of years, such as in dry caves (possible source of Megatherium or Giant Ground Sloth DNA), as well as from frozen carcases, the likely source of Mammoth and Woolly Rhino genetic material.
In June of last year, Everything Dinosaur published an article on the recovery of Mastodon DNA (an ancient elephant) in a fossil tooth 130,000 years old.
To read the full article: DNA Breakthrough in the Tooth of an Extinct Elephant
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany have been at the forefront of genetic research and as well as studying the genome of ancient elephants their work has also involved studies of Neanderthals. As they work on the genetic profile of Neanderthals, the researchers have made some remarkable discoveries. For instance, genetic analysis may indicate that many Neanderthals had red hair. Evidence of the insight that an understanding of the genetic profile can bring.
We humans, seem to be fascinated by our Neanderthal relatives, perhaps the last other human species to co-exist with modern man, certainly in Europe anyway. There is a Neanderthal forensic modelling kit available from Everything Dinosaur, based on real Neanderthal fossils found in France. This particular item from our Everything Dinosaur shop has proved very popular with people from aged 8 to 80 telling us about their own Neanderthal that the kit has helped them bring back to life.
The Neanderthal Skull Modelling Kit From Everything Dinosaur
Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur
To view the kit: Dinosaur Crafts for Kids
To read more about the Max Planck Institute's study on Neanderthals: The Neanderthals were Redheads
Last November, scientists reported that they had created a partial genetic profile of a Woolly Mammoth, a vital step in the cloning process, although the day when Mammoths could be seen again by humans was still some way off.
It is not only extinct species that can benefit from developments in genetics. It has been estimated that half of the world's big mammal species are under threat so creatures such as the Gorilla can have their DNA stored to help scientists bring back these animals should they go extinct in a few years. Although, the cloning techniques are not that advanced to resurrect an extinct species at present, as our technology develops scientist predict that it will be possible. DNA of endangered species that is preserved today, can then be used in the resurrection process. In the case of the Gorilla, the surrogate mother would most likely be a Chimpanzee.
Such ambitious goals, identifying a top fifty candidate species for bringing back to life remain out of our reach but with developments in technology, such processes will be possible in the future.
Sadly, bringing dinosaurs back to life, such as those depicted in the Jurassic Park trilogy remains a very distant hope. For animals that have been extinct for millions years, there is little chance of recovering usable DNA. Our science would have to develop a great deal more, even if this was to become a remote possibility – but it is best not to rule anything out at this stage. After all, it is barely 150 years since Charles Darwin's “Origin of Species” and only a little over 100 years ago that the work of Gregor Mendel, regarded as the “father of modern genetics” began to be appreciated.
Who knows where science will take us, commenting on the New Scientist article, geneticist Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute stated:
“It's hard to say that something will never ever be possible, but it would require technologies so far removed from what we currently have that I cannot imagine how it would be done.”
However, with the rapid progress being made in the field of genetic research it is intriguing to imagine what the possibilities might be.