Woolly Mammoth Cloning: This Could Be Bad

Cloning extinct animals back into existence, a process known as "de-extinction," was once thought to be the stuff of science fiction. It was never really thought that we'd be able to see creatures like dinosaurs, the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger and the Xerces blue butterfly roam the planet again.

Although the closest we may come to seeing dinosaurs is in "Jurassic Park 3D," new technologies have made bringing back to life a number of extinct creatures increasingly possible.

It all stated back in 1996, when scientists cloned Dolly the Sheep. Since 2009 there have been considerable advances in cloning, DNA sequencing and gene splicing that have allowed scientists to delve into previously unknown realms of de-extinction. The poster child for this has been the woolly mammoth and currently, Korean and Russian researchers are examining tissue from a preserved specimen in search of cells that can be used for cloning.

Harvard geneticist George Church has been developing a technique whereby reconstructed DNA code from an extinct species is inserted into the stem cells of a closely related living creature. For instance, the DNA code of a passenger pigeon would be reintroduced into a common rock pigeon. Over time, the rock pigeons would turn into passenger pigeons.

"George Church's method will open up a whole new range of possibilities," says science writer Carl Zimmer. "You're not actually grabbing an intact molecule that was inside an animal that was alive 1,000 years ago."

But are such efforts ethical, or even worthwhile? As science writer Brian Switek recently pointed out, the same amount of time and money could be spent trying to prevent endangered species from disappearing. And if researchers are able to clone a woolly mammoth within the stated time goal of five years, where would the creature live? Since they existed in the cold and dry mammoth steppe during the last Ice Age, should we revive an animal that would possibly be relegated only to zoos or diminishing habitats?

National Geographic's April issue is titled "Reviving extinct species: We can. But should we?" and it is not the only example of the discussion currently being held about de-extinction. On Friday March 15 researchers are gathering at the TEDX DeExtinction symposium to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of bringing ancient creatures back to life. Held at the Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington, D.C., the event will feature as a speaker Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference talk series, and others. It will be viewable online through a live stream.

What do you think? If it becomes possible, do you think extinct animals should be brought back?

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