National Geographic

It's Called 'De-Extinction' — It's Like 'Jurassic Park,' Except It's Real

Sorry to disappoint, but science writer Carl Zimmer says we're not going to bring back dinosaurs. But, he says, "science has developed to the point where we can actually talk seriously about possibly bringing back more recently extinct species."

It's called "de-extinction" — and it's Zimmer's cover story for National Geographic's April issue.

Resurrection Tintypes

To capture the mood of this story, National Geographic hired tintype photographer Robb Kendrick. He used a nearly extinct photo technique to capture museum exhibits of extinct species.

  • The bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, lived high in the Pyrenees until its extinction in 2000. Three years later researchers attempted to clone Celia, the last bucardo. The clone died minutes after birth. Taxidermic specimen, Regional Government of Aragon, Spain
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    The bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, lived high in the Pyrenees until its extinction in 2000. Three years later researchers attempted to clone Celia, the last bucardo. The clone died minutes after birth. Taxidermic specimen, Regional Government of Aragon, Spain
    Robb Kendrick/National Geographic
  • Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
    Hide caption
    Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
    Robb Kendrick/National Geographic
  • Billions of passenger pigeons once filled the skies of eastern North America. Martha, the last one, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Geneticists now think they could resurrect the species. Taxidermic specimen, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
    Hide caption
    Billions of passenger pigeons once filled the skies of eastern North America. Martha, the last one, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Geneticists now think they could resurrect the species. Taxidermic specimen, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
    Robb Kendrick/National Geographic
  • Though it looked like a wolf and was called a Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine was actually a marsupial — a relative of kangaroos and koalas. By the 1930s it had been hunted to extinction. Taxidermic specimen, American Museum of Natural History, New York
    Hide caption
    Though it looked like a wolf and was called a Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine was actually a marsupial — a relative of kangaroos and koalas. By the 1930s it had been hunted to extinction. Taxidermic specimen, American Museum of Natural History, New York
    Robb Kendrick/National Geographic

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In 2003, he tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, scientists took some DNA that had been rescued from the very last bucardo, a type of wild goat that had recently gone extinct. And, long story short, they used a surrogate egg and mother to bring a bucardo — or something close to it — back to life. It was born with birth defects, lived for 10 minutes, and then went extinct again. But scientists saw this as a major breakthrough.

National Geographic
 

How de-extinction works is complicated, and that's what the National Geographic article is for. The bigger, arguably more pressing, question is: Why develop de-extinction? And there's a discussion about that on National Geographic's website, as well.

Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is quoted in the magazine article as saying: "What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species."

Leave your comments here, or join the discussion there. You can also follow what the leading scientists think, as they gather Friday for a daylong TEDx event in Washington, D.C. Or learn more in this TED talk by Stewart Brand, who heads up the Revive and Restore project.

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