Dr Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement at Birmingham University, has made a public plea against the recreation of extinct species. The point of her remarks is her recognition that scientists are on the brink of being able to do this. Japanese researchers have extracted the DNA of a hairy mammoth from the bone marrow of a specimen preserved in the permafrost, and will soon set about cloning an animal from it, probably bringing the embryo to term using an elephant as a surrogate mother. Her objection is based in the fact that their habitat is gone, and they were herd-living animals, so it would be cruel to recreate a single individual for a zoo. Yes, but once we have one we can recreate a herd, and we can recreate a habitat for them just as we have game reserves for elephants. Dr Roberts will present a forthcoming BBC2 series, “Ice Giants,” about creatures that became extinct 20,000 years ago.
Our ancestors almost certainly played a large part in the extinction of these creatures, and I have no doubt that we will restore some of them. I saw the baby mammoth, partly crushed by the pressure of mud, that the Russians displayed in an exhibition some years ago. It was mind-blowing to see a creature that died so long ago, still with skin and hair. It looked incomparably cute, and my guess is that mammoths, especially baby ones, will become the megastars of the animal kingdom when we bring them back. They are a link with our lost past. And dinosaurs? Will we do a Jurassic Park? I think the odds overwhelmingly favour it. We are unlikely to find viable DNA from blood-sucking mosquitoes preserved in amber, as Michael Crichton imagined, but we don’t need to. Lurking within the junk DNA of flightless birds is probably everything it would take to make a dinosaur. We need analysis to identify it all and incredibly complex computer programs to sift through it all and establish the function of each section. Then we turn on the parts that recreate the jaws with teeth that preceded beaks, the limbs that became wings, and the spiny tails. We’ll probably have some clues from such DNA strands as can be identified. Once we have one, we can recreate variations from it that give us others. Oh yes, they’ll be back, and the world will be richer for it.
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