Saturday, February 03, 2007

Return of the Passenger Pigeon?

While the cloning of dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park is exciting to think about (and leads to a lot of stomping and chomping action), it's scientifically unlikely that ancient DNA could be used to clone species that became extinct millions of years ago. The problem is that ancient DNA is often degraded, making reconstruction of an intact genome nearly impossible.

While we may never see living velociraptors, there is a good chance that more recently extinct animals will eventually be revived. The idea is that skins, feathers, and even whole animals that are currently preserved in natural history museums can provide enough intact DNA to make cloning possible. So far there has been little success: an attempt by Australian scientists to bring back the Tasmanian tiger was cancelled due to the poor quality of the available DNA (then apparently revived by a consortium of universities), a project attempting to clone the Pyrenean Ibex has been unable to produce live animals, and a project approved in 1999 to revive the extinct Huia bird has not reported any results at all. There has only been discussion of cloning the fabled passenger pigeon. Scientists remain optimistic, however, that such cloning will eventually be achieved.

Like all technological advances, the cloning of extinct and endangered species is controversial, in no small part because the whiz-bang technology shifts attention away from the underlying causes of extinction, such as habitat loss, pollution, and excessive hunting and fishing. It makes little sense to reintroduce restored species while the numbers of their still-living cousins are still dwindling.

David Coe's short story, "The Christmas Count"(updated story link), is one take on what the results of such a successful cloning program might look like.
"You didn't read the article, did you?"

I shrug and stare out the window. "I glanced at it. I thought it was—I don't know—talking about future stuff. I didn't realize they were doing it already, that they'd managed to bring back so many species."

"You read the papers. They have the technology. They might as well use it. I mean, what harm could come from this?"
Read "The Christmas Count" for free at SciFiction on David Coe's web site to find out.
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Image: Passenger Pigeon (1829), From the Tour: Selections from John James Audubon's The Birds of America (1827-1838) at the National Gallery of Art.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I read "The Christmas Count" and it was pretty scary to think of it like that. But this would not happen with all species - and with generation breeding maybe the 'rouge' genes from the host species could be eliminated from the clones.

Of course there would be people who would misuse the technology, but the ones who use it right could do so much good - To keep us smiling and hope the parrots don't.