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April 23, 2014

Should we bring extinct species back to life?


Though it may sound like “Jurassic Park,” researchers and entrepreneurs are now trying to bring back extinct species.

Some scientists believe it’s a way to correct past mistakes and even help endangered animals.

Dinosaur DNA is too old to offer viable genetic material, but scientists are focusing on species who went extinct more recently, and whose DNA still exists.

Researchers have already revived one extinct animal. A species of mountain goat was cloned in Spain in 2003. But the clone only lived a few minutes.

Other scientists are working on bringing back the woolly mammoth, who they believe may help stop Arctic ice loss by grazing and protecting the permafrost, and the passenger pigeon, which was once the most abundant bird species on the planet.

“In the early 1800s, there were five billion of these birds just in the United States. Within the span of about 50 years, they go extinct,” said Ben Novac of Revive and Restore, who is working on a way to revive the species. The birds went extinct in 1914 due to over-hunting.

“It opens the door to this brand-new future of conservation, in which we can finally shift gears from thinking that we’re losing life on this planet to the fact that we are actually gaining it back.”

To de-extinct the passenger pigeon, Novak plans to genetically engineer its closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon. He would insert genes he obtained from passenger pigeon museum specimens.

This is a painstaking process, as DNA is degraded and it’s hard to identify what genes do what. Novak would like to replace band-tailed pigeons’ square tails with the long tail and swift wings that allowed passenger pigeons to fly at 60 miles per hour.

However, some scientists are concerned about the ethical implications of bringing back extinct species.

“We’re lost, unless we realize that we’re just a part of this intricate web. And we ought to bring species back if they can help maintain that web, but not because it makes us feel better and sleep better at night,” said Jim Patton, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Warm up questions
  1. What are some reasons that animals go extinct?
  2. Can you name some species that have recently become extinct? (Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago so they don’t count – think more recent like the last 10,000 years) Do you know why they died off? If so, explain.
  3. Is it worth millions of dollars to keep endangered species alive like sea turtles and pandas? Why or why not?
Discussion questions
  1. Why are scientists hypothetically able to bring back some animals that have gone extinct and not others, like dinosaurs for example?
  2. What are a few reasons scientists want to bring back certain extinct animals? Do you agree with them? What ethical issues should be considered before bringing back an animal?
  3. Identify the importance of the image above and explain what it has to do with elephants and wooly mammoths.
Writing prompt

Imagine you are an expert biologist who works with DNA. With the current technology, you have a good shot at being able to bring back an extinct animal or being able to create more animals that are endangered now through cloning. Which would you choose to do? Explain why one is more important to do and why? Also, what animal would you either bring back or clone? Why is that animal worthy over others?

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