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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Biotechnology: The quest to bring back extinct animals

In "A Life of Its Own: Where will synthetic biology lead us?" (September 28, 2009 New Yorker mag), Michael Specter reports, "If the science truly succeeds, it will make it possible to supplant the world created by Darwinian evolution with one created by us."

Jurassic Park, anyone? Consider this:
... researchers have now resurrected the DNA of the Tasmanian tiger, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, which has been extinct for more than seventy years. In 2008, scientists from the University of Melbourne and the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, extracted DNA from tissue that had been preserved in the Museum Victoria, in Melbourne. They took a fragment of DNA that controlled the production of a collagen gene from the tiger and inserted it into a mouse embryo. The DNA switched on just the right gene, and the embryo began to churn out collagen. That marked the first time that any material from an extinct creature other than a virus has functioned inside a living organism.

It will not be the last. A team from Pennsylvania State University, working with hair samples from two woolly mammoths—one of them sixty thousand years old and the other eighteen thousand—has tentatively figured out how to modify that DNA and place it inside an elephant’s egg. The mammoth could then be brought to term in an elephant mother. “There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth—a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. Rex.,” the Times editorialized soon after the discovery was announced. “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.”
The article discusses both the promise and the peril or reengineering nature.

Personally, I am a bit skeptical that an extinct creature can be resurrected from DNA alone, but ... wait! What I thought was passing traffic turned out to be a herd of tyrannosaurs heading off to eat the McDonalds.

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