Could de-extincting the dodo help struggling species?
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
AARON SCOTT, HOST:
There's that moment in the original "Jurassic Park" movie when the scientists are driving through the park for the very first time and they see a brachiosaurus walking by their jeep.
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LAURA DERN: (As Ellie Sattler) Look.
SAM NEILL: (As Alan Grant) It's - it's a dinosaur.
DERN: (As Ellie Sattler) Uh-huh.
SCOTT: Whenever I watch that scene, I wonder - what would that it be like to see this long-extinct, magnificent creature brought back from the fossil graveyard? Unfortunately, it would likely require some movie magic because, as we learned from evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro in yesterday's episode, the chances of seeing dinosaurs resurrected from their DNA are next to nil.
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BETH SHAPIRO: Dinosaurs went extinct more than 65 million years ago. We're never going to get DNA from something that's that old.
SCOTT: But there are other iconic, extinct animals from the more recent past that have been better preserved. And as you may have heard, there are people now working to bring some of them back to life.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The company is looking to bring back the dodo bird from extinction.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Colossal Biosciences says it'll start by...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Colossal also wants to bring back two other extinct animals - the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger.
ROB ELGAS: The dodo bird. It's a complicated project using ancient DNA sequencing. The end result would be an altered version of the dodo bird.
SCOTT: Beth Shapiro is involved in a number of these de-extinction projects. As the co-director of the Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she's an expert on this sort of stuff. And yet, she remains skeptical.
SHAPIRO: I wrote a book called "How To Clone A Mammoth" that was basically - you can't do this.
SCOTT: Today on the show, the second part of our conversation with Beth Shapiro about how her initial work mapping the dodo genome laid the groundwork to bring it back from extinction - or at least some version of it. Plus, how working to resurrect extinct animals might help protect vulnerable, present-day species. I'm Aaron Scott, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SCOTT: The idea of bringing animals back from extinction has been in the news a lot of late. Most recently, the company Colossal Biosciences announced that it's going to try to bring back the dodo bird. Beth Shapiro is the lead geneticist for the company, and she explains how the idea of something like bringing back the dodo - or what's called de-extinction - got its start.
SHAPIRO: From the very beginning of my involvement with ancient DNA, whenever we would publish a paper - it didn't matter what the paper was, what the animal was, how excited we were about the ecological implications of our results or anything like that - the only question that we consistently were asked was, what does this mean about how close we are to bringing a mammoth back...
SCOTT: Oh, no.
SHAPIRO: ...To life, right? And so this is just - it's the question, and it has consistently been the question that we are asked every time we publish anything. In fact, when I was doing research for my most recent book, "Life As We Made It," I found an article from The New York Times that was published in 1984, just after the very first ancient DNA paper was published. A team of scientists working in Allan Wilson's lab at Berkeley had gotten a tiny fragment of DNA from a quagga, which is a type of zebra. And it was the very first ancient DNA paper that was ever published. And Allan Wilson got to be the very first ancient DNA scientist ever to be asked...
SHAPIRO: ...What this meant about when we were going to bring mammoths back to life. And that pattern...
SCOTT: We're such...
SHAPIRO: ...Has not ended.
SCOTT: ...One-track minds, we humans.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You know, Colossal - George Church was - has claimed that he's been working on bringing mammoths back to life for several years. And he teamed up with Ben Lamm, and they formed Colossal. And they got a huge amount of investment from the tech industry to be able to build technologies that you would need to bring extinct species back to life. And I was brought on as an advisor, mostly because I've said a lot of things about how it's not possible to bring extinct species back to life. And so they were like, let's bring her on board so we can have a conversation about this.
SCOTT: So do you still stick by your take that it's impossible?
SHAPIRO: I maintain that once - and they don't disagree - once a species is gone, once it's extinct, it is not possible to bring back an identical copy of that species. But there are technologies that will allow us to resurrect extinct traits - to move bits and pieces of genes that might be adapted to a large animal, like an elephant, living in the Arctic. And you might be able to use CRISPR - gene editing approaches - to create an Arctic-adapted elephant, which, if you look on Colossal's website, is what they say that they're doing with their mammoth project. And they've also declared that any technology that they develop that could be used for conservation they will make available for conservation purposes for free. And I think this is a deeply laudable thing. I like that there is new money from tech people that's going into conservation at a time where we need new tools to protect and preserve biodiversity that exists today.
So when they were doing their fundraising round - their next fundraising round, and Ben was asking - well, where should we invest next? - I think that one of the groups of animals that is most in danger today is birds. And we don't have technologies that make it possible to clone birds.
SHAPIRO: So they said, so what should our target species for de-extinction be? And I happen to have a dodo tattoo...
SHAPIRO: ...And so it was pretty easy for me to...
SCOTT: Show and tell?
SHAPIRO: Show and tell. No, I think the dodo is actually a really nice example because we're working with people in Mauritius who were interested to see the dodo come back. It only lived on Mauritius. Dodos went extinct because of things like cats and crab-eating monkeys and rats that were introduced by people when they first arrived in Mauritius several hundred years ago.
SCOTT: And are still there, I'm presuming.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and they're still there. That's right. Yeah. And so some concerted efforts to identify places where these predators could be removed would be there. But, you know, there's another group out there called Revive & Restore. It's a nonprofit. They've been at this longer than Colossal have, and I'm on the board of directors for Revive & Restore. They've just launched a huge initiative for biotech for birds that is involving academics from around the world who are all doing different things to try to help figure out how we can create tools that allow us to edit the genomes of birds. I'm excited to see where this investment goes and how it can help us to protect birds that are alive today from becoming extinct.
SCOTT: And can you say a little bit about - more about how that would be used from a conservation angle? I mean, would the idea be that we would edit the genomes to help them survive certain things they can't survive now?
SHAPIRO: I think the most successful use of this technology so far has been for the American chestnut tree. This is a project that's been run out of SUNY, New York, by Bill Powell and Chuck Maynard. They've been working on this for a while. The American chestnut tree - there used to be billions of these trees that lived across the Eastern part of North America until the early 20th century, when a fungus that was introduced, presumably as part of a shipment of Asian chestnut trees that are resistant to this disease, started to get into them. And within a couple of decades, all of the trees were gone. They're not entirely dead. There's little zombie roots that survive underground, and they can shoot up these little zombie trees for a short period of time until the fungus gets in them.
But what Bill - what the team from SUNY did is they looked to other plants that also deal with fungi like this. And they thought, how are these other plants protecting themselves against this type of fungus? They found a gene from wheat that produces an enzyme that neutralizes the acidity that the fungus produced. So the fungus will excrete this acidity that will burn holes through the inside of the plant and then the fungus grows through those holes. But if you have this enzyme, you can neutralize that acidity so the fungus can survive, but it just can't really proliferate. It can't kill you. And so they've created transgenic versions of the American chestnut tree that they call the Darling variety. And these trees are currently undergoing federal regulatory approval process and hopefully will be able to be released. And when they - when, I'm going to say - when they are approved, they will be the first genetically modified organism created solely for the purpose of forest restoration.
In habitats across the world today, the pace of change is faster than evolution by natural selection can keep up. And obviously, it would be best if we could just take a step back, if we could give species and habitats the time that they need to be able to catch up, to be able to adapt to today's environments. But we can't. Our footprint is too big. It's too late. But it's in these situations where these new technologies can offer hope. We can sequence genomes and use that to make more informed breeding decisions. We can potentially resurrect extinct diversity by cloning. We can even maybe move adaptive traits between species. Of course, there are risks to adopting new technologies, and we're far from understanding what all the risks might be or developing the approaches that we would need to mitigate these risks. But there is also a tremendous risk in not allowing ourselves the time to explore what these new technologies can do.
And this is really where I feel that these tools, this idea about de-extinction, has the most potential to really help in the future. If it takes imagining that we're going to bring a mammoth back to life or we're going to recreate a dodo to get more people excited, to have people invest into the development of these tools for biodiversity, then I'm all for it. We're really at a pivotal point right now where we need as many tools and ideas as we can in conservation, and this is a great opportunity. Let's do it.
SCOTT: Thank you, Beth. It's just been a joy to dream about dodos and mammoths with you.
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ANDREA PERRY: (Singing) It's coming back to life.
SCOTT: Beth Shapiro is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she's the author, most recently, of "Life As We Made It: How 50,000 Years Of Human Innovation Refined And Redefined Nature."
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PERRY: (Singing) Starting up again. Everything is coming back to life.
SCOTT: Before we go, a huge thank you to all of our Plus subscribers out there listening. When you subscribe to NPR+, you get the shows sponsor-free, and you know that you're making a huge difference in supporting our work and making it possible for us to bring you these episodes every weekday. If you're not a subscriber, learn how. Go to plus.npr.org/shortwave.
This episode was produced by Thomas Lu and Berly McCoy. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Anil Oza. Our audio engineer was Josh Newell. Rebecca Ramirez is our managing producer. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Beth Donovan is the senior director of programming, and Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING BACK TO LIFE")
PERRY: (Singing) We're coming back to life.
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