Saturday, September 10, 2016

In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, by Beth Shapiro

In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press, 2015), UGA graduate Beth Shapiro has written an interesting account of the current state of affairs regarding the cloning of extinct animals.  Shapiro’s interest in cloning extinct animals is not so much the result of her desire to bring them back as it is to restore the ecosystems they once inhabited.  She has been a member of projects devoted to cloning mammoths and passenger pigeons.  Her research as an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, mostly involves studying ancient DNA and other genetic information to understand the lives of ancient organisms such as mammoths, horses, pigeons, and even humans.  Her book reviews current cloning science, speculates on what might be done with animals who are successfully resurrected, wonders whether bringing them back might be a bad idea, and investigates the possibility that GMO laws might complicate such work.
The disappointing aspect of this book (given the title) is Shaprio’s contention that cloning of mammoths will probably never occur.  Cloning is possible only when perfectly preserved genetic material is available for implanting in a host egg. Even in totally frozen remains of mammoths, cells have died and DNA has degraded. I have always wanted to see extinct animals brought back to life.  The first Jurassic Park film fascinated me.  Shapiro shows that the science which was the basis for the film was mostly erroneous (amber doesn’t preserve DNA). Time’s arrow inexorably points forwards.  Time travel to the past isn’t possible.  Recovering species lost to the past is highly unlikely. It is sad to know that cloning may never be used to bring back ancient extinct species.
Cloning requires DNA, and the DNA of mammoths degraded so quickly after their deaths that it can now be recovered only in small fragments.  Shapiro is doubtful about efforts now underway to find mammoth DNA in frozen mammoth carcasses still being uncovered on the Siberian tundra. An alternative path to resurrecting extinct mammoths is genetically engineering the genome of closely related animals—such as Asian elephants—in order to produce offspring with the traits of mammoths—such as hair and resistance to cold.  The mammoth genome has been reconstructed. Selective breeding of closely related species could also be used to “bring back” extinct species.  These animals would resemble mammoths but not actually be mammoths, though they could live in the environments mammoths once inhabited.  Interestingly, Shapiro notes that land has been set aside in Siberia for a “Pleistocene Park” where mammoths and other resurrected animals might live in an ecosystem resembling that of thousands of years ago.
Shapiro suggests that genetically engineered mammoth-like creatures could be produced.  But why invest the time and expense of creating them when the real need is to preserve the current natural environment that is endangered by pollution, excessive development, global warming, and other human-caused factors?  I’d like to see a mammoth, yes, but I’d especially like to continue to see the wildlife that is now in rapid decline.  It would probably be far less expensive and complicated to ensure that lions and elephants survive than it would be to resurrect mammoths.

How to Clone a Mammoth is an excellent book.

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