What is extinction? For a species there is no greater failure. It’s a dead end for millennia of genetic adaptation and refinement. Extinction is the dustbin collecting the scratch paper of your discarded attempt to crack the genetic code. But extinction can also be a beginning.
This week, to mark the 44th observance of Earth Day, we invite you to join us in our pursuit to better understand extinction. We’ll explore the traditional idea of extinction you learned about in grade school science, and we want to understand other sorts of extinction, as well. What happens when ideas, technology or even ways of life go extinct?
Welcome to Extinction Week at the PBS NewsHour.
To get started we asked, where does extinction happen? The traditional idea of extinction is global: the end of the dinosaurs, the biologically doomed dodo, the much-discussed mass extinction events. But scientists are beginning to understand how smaller-scale extinctions shape our world as well. In the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, researchers have found that fallen leaves, trees and plants lie on the ground for months without rotting. The local populations of microbes, wiped out by intense radiation, have stopped doing their part to break down organic matter. So the detritus remains.
But extinction can be even more local, like when it happens inside your own body. On Science Wednesday, PBS NewsHour reporter Producer Rebecca Jacobson talks to Dr. Martin J. Blaser about his new book, “Missing Microbes.” Blaser reveals what happens when populations of beneficial human gut bacteria are wiped out. We acquire this bacteria as babies crawling in the dirt and from the contact and kisses from our family members. But city-dwelling people, living squeaky-clean antibiotic lives, have lost a third of their internal microbial diversity compared to those who live in more rural settings. Perhaps it’s time we all got a little more dirty.
Today we find out what happens when a coin becomes obsolete, as the Canadian mint collects and recycles more than 30 billion pennies that are being phased out of circulation. Later this week, we’ll meet a group living together on a Virginia commune, working to keep the values of the 1960s counterculture alive.
And we’d like you to help us find things in your world that are going extinct. Share a photo of the vacant burger joint that used to bring life to your neighborhood’s corner, or the empty shopping mall collecting dust down the street. We’re collecting them on Instagram and Facebook under the hashtag #extinctionweek.
And that brings us to the end — but not the real end. Is extinction really final anymore? On Earth Day, we’ll take a look at the controversies surrounding efforts at an emerging science called de-extinction with KQED’s Quest. It’s a mixture of conservation and genetic science focused on bringing back species that recently went extinct, like the passenger pigeon or the woolly mammoth. Proponents say it’s a way to save species we’re losing everyday. Critics worry it’s a flash in the petri dish — a distraction from the critical field science that can save these animals before they’re lost.
Thanks for joining us for Extinction Week. We hope we’ll be around for a long time.