Stewart Brand begins today’s TED Talk with an elegy for Martha of Cincinnati, who died in 1914. No, Martha is not a person. She was the very last passenger pigeon.
Stewart Brand: The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready? “Extinction is a different kind of death — it’s bigger,” says Brand in this talk, given at TED2013. “This had been the most abundant bird in the world. They lived in North America for 6 million years — suddenly it wasn’t here at all.”
But, Brand shares, the passenger pigeon could now be brought back to life. He calls it: de-extinction.
Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement in the 1960s, is known for thinking of history differently. At TED2004, he shared his vision for the Clock of the Long Now, which keeps time for 10,000 years. Stewart Brand: The Long NowAt TED@State, he shared 4 environmental ‘heresies,’ coming out in favor of nuclear power and genetically engineered crops. But in this talk, Stewart lays the groundwork for his boldest idea yet: bringing back species like the Carolina parakeet (extinct 1916), the Heath hen (extinct 1932), the Tasmanian tiger (extinct 1936) … even the Woolly Mammoth (extinct about 4,000 years ago).
Brand says this is an extension of current work being done to save endangered species.
Stewart Brand: 4 environmental 'heresies'“Humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. We have the ability now and, maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage,” says Brand. “We interfered in a big way by making them these animals extinct. Many of them were keystone species and we changed the whole ecosystem they were in.”
To hear how “ancient DNA” from museum specimens and fossils could be used to bring back some of these species, watch this bold talk. It, of course, will bring to mind many visceral questions. For example: Can we really bring extinct species back to life? Should we? Can these animals be reintroduced into the wild? How would we do that ethically? And are we playing God by even thinking about it? (See the video above for thoughts on that one.)
For the past two years, Brand — along with his wife, biotech expert Ryan Phelan, and genetic engineer George Church — has held private workshops to explore whether de-extinction was possible, and whether biologists were interested in the idea. This is just the beginning of a long conversation — one Brand now wants to take public. To further dive into all the myriad questions involved in de-extinction, he is holding TEDxDeExtinction this coming Friday in Washington, DC. A joint effort between Brand’s non-profit Revive & Restore, TED and National Geographic — TEDxDeExtinction will be the first public exploration of this fascinating topic.
The event will be divided into the sessions “Who,” “How,” “Why and Why Not,” and “Wild Again.” It will feature greetings from TED’s own Chris Anderson and National Geographic Society chairman John Fahey, as well as talks from Michael Archer on “A second chance for Tasmanian Tigers and Fantastic Frogs,” Robert Lanza on “The Use of Cloning and Stem Cells to Resurrect Life” and Beth Shapiro, who sequenced the genome of passenger pigeon, on “Ancient DNA.” See the full program here »
But perhaps the most exciting part of the TEDxDeExtinction website is the Frequently Asked Questions page. Below, just a sampling:
Why do it? Why revive extinct species?
For the same reasons we protect endangered species. To preserve biodiveristy and genetic diversity. To undo harm that humans have caused in the past. To restore diminished ecosystems. To advance the science of preventing extinctions.
How soon will some extinct creature live again?
Signs are there will be some impressive milestones in this decade. Technically one extinction has already been partially reversed. The last Pyrenean ibex (also called a bucardo) died in 2000. A Spanish team used frozen tissue to clone a living twin in 2003, birthed by a goat. The baby ibex died of respiratory failure after 10 minutes (a common problem in early cloning efforts). Funding dried up, so no further work has been done on this species as yet. As George Church reminds people, the first airplane flight in 1903 lasted 12 seconds.
How many techniques are there, and how do they work?
There are at least three semi-successful techniques for de-extinction so far. 1) Selective back-breeding of existing descendents to recreate a primordial ancestor is being used for the revival of the European Aurochs, among others. 2) Cloning with cells from cryopreserved tissue of a recently extinct animal can generate viable eggs. If the eggs are implanted in a closely related surrogate mother, some pregnancies produce living offspring of the extinct species. 3) Allele replacement for precisely hybridizing a living species with an extinct species is the new genome-editing technique developed by George Church. If the technique proves successful (such as with the passenger pigeon), it might be applied to the many other extinct species that have left their “ancient DNA” in museum specimens and fossils up to 200,000 years old.
It all sounds like Jurassic Park. How is this different?
It was a wonderful movie, which introduced the world to the idea of de-extinction back in 1993. Its science fiction is quite different from current reality, though. First, no dinosaurs—sorry! No recoverable DNA has been found in dinosaur fossils (nor in amber-encased mosquitoes). Robert Lanza observes, “You can’t clone from stone.”
Second, the plot of the movie is driven by protecting the commercial secrecy of an island theme park. Real-world de-extinction is being conducted with total transparency. Eventual rewilding of revived species can be no more commercial than the current worldwide protection of endangered species and wildlands.