deextinction

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Top 10 science stories of 2013

From the first vat-grown hamburger to the discovery of the world’s largest volcano, scientists pushed back the limits of human knowledge in 2013 and developed technologies that could radically change how we live our lives. 

1. Space sounds revealed Voyager 1 had boldly gone: In September, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave our solar system and venture into interstellar space. The probe, launched in 1977 with the aim of reaching Jupiter and Saturn, is now over 19 billion kilometres from the sun. Scientists listened in to vibrations in the plasma surrounding Voyager – the sound of interstellar space – after it was hit by a massive solar wave in April. The vibrations allowed them to calculate the plasma’s density, which differs between our solar system and interstellar space, confirming Voyager was no longer in our solar system.

2. Carbon dioxide hit a new peak and human influence on the climate was clearer than ever: In May, levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a symbolic milestone, passing 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time in human history. Just a few months later in September, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that human influence on the climate system is clearer than ever -we are now 95 percent certain that humans are the cause of global warming. Climate scientists from New Zealand were among the more than 600 scientists and researchers who worked on the IPCC report.

3. Scientists created human stem cells using cloning techniques: In May, researchers used therapeutic cloning to create human embryonic stem cells for the first time. The process involved taking the nucleus – which contains the genetic material – from a normal cell and transferring it into an unfertilised egg with its own genetic material removed. While this approach had previously been used in monkeys and mice, it had never succeeded using human cells. This discovery, described by Australian scientists as “a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine”, could help develop personalised therapies for a range of currently untreatable diseases. However, the process requires human donor eggs, which are not easy to obtain, and raises a number of ethical issues.

4. Do you want fries with that? The world’s most expensive burger was grown in the lab:The world’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London in August this year – generating headlines around the world. The burger patty – which one food critic described as ‘close to meat’ – was developed by scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands through research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Starting with stem cells from a biopsy of two cows (a Belgian Blue and a Blonde d’Aquitaine), the scientists grew muscle fibres in the lab. The fibres were pressed together with breadcrumbs and binding ingredients, then coloured with beetroot juice and saffron, resulting in the most expensive hamburger in history at a cost of around NZ$400,000.

5. Doctors stopped HIV in its tracks in the “Mississippi baby”: A child born with HIV and treated with a series of antiviral drugs for the first 18 months of its life was found to be free of the virus more than 12 months after treatment ended. When the infant was 30 months of age, HIV-1 antibodies remained completely undetectable. However, the big question of whether this child, known as the “Mississippi baby”, has truly been cured of HIV remains unanswered. “The best answer at the moment is a definitive maybe”, HIV expert Scott Hammer, wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial which accompanied the research.

6. Redefining mental illness: In May, the new version of the diagnostic reference manual used by clinicians in the U.S. and around the world to diagnose mental disorders was released. The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the first update in nearly 20 years and followed a decade of review and consultation. It’s publication met with widespread controversy. One of its major changes is to introduce a graded scale known as Autism Spectrum Disorder combining the former four autism-related disorders: autistic, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative, and pervasive developmental disorder. Elsewhere, several new disorders were added, new suicide risk assessment scales were introduced and the threshold for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was lowered. Critics of DSM-5, including New Zealand experts,  argue that it will lead to the over-diagnosis of mental disorders, stigmatising millions of people who are essentially normal.

7. Human liver grown in mouse: Scientists successfully transplanted tiny ‘liver buds’ derived from human stem cells into mice with disable immune systems, staving off the deaths of the animals. The preliminary results, published in Nature, will need years of follow-up research and trials, but hint at a potential solution to the worldwide scarcity of human livers available for transplant. Major technical hurdles have to be overcome before the treatment is useful for humans, including mass-producing the trillions of human iPS-derived precursor cells to even replace even part of a human liver.

8. A king turned up in a car park: In February the bones of Richard III were discovered in the inauspicious surroundings of a car park in Leicester, England – more than 500 years after he died. Radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis all helped confirm the identity of last Plantagenet king. As if the indignity of being dug up in a car park wasn’t bad enough, further research revealed Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines.

9. The croaking dead: An Aussie frog was resurrected: Australian scientists announced in March that they had succeeded in growing early stage embryos containing the DNA of an extinct frog. The research is the first step of Project Lazarus, which aims to bring the Australian gastric-brooding frog back to life. The scientists took nuclei – which contain the extinct frog’s DNA – from frozen tissue samples collected in the 1970s. The nuclei were injected into donor eggs from a distantly-related frog, and some of the eggs went on to divide and grow into embryos, reviving hopes for an animal that has been extinct since 1983. The research was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of this year

10. The world’s largest volcano was discovered: In September, scientists discovered the largest single volcano on Earth under the Pacific Ocean. The megavolcano spans 650 km – similar to the distance between Melbourne and Canberra – but don’t worry, it’s been slumbering for the last 145m years. Scientists had thought the volcano, known as Tamu Massif, was a series of volcanoes, but the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – of which Australia is a partner – showed that it is in fact a single, immense volcano, constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the volcanic centre to form a broad, shield-like shape.

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It’s the centennial of the last Passenger Pigeon’s death. Read a great piece by Carl Zimmer in National Geographic today.

The first record of a Passenger Pigeon comes from 01534.

The last one was Martha who died in captivity in 01914 at the age of 29.

And today Long Now’s Revive & Restore project is working to bring them back.

We also have a couple Passenger Pigeons you can see in person right now at The Interval. A species with a prodigious past, and perhaps a future….

The Mammoth Cometh

Bringing extinct animals back to life is really happening — and it’s going to be very, very cool. Unless it ends up being very, very bad.

The first time Ben Novak saw a passenger pigeon, he fell to his knees and remained in that position, speechless, for 20 minutes. He was 16. At 13, Novak vowed to devote his life to resurrecting extinct animals. At 14, he saw a photograph of a passenger pigeon in an Audubon Society book and “fell in love.” But he didn’t know that the Science Museum of Minnesota, which he was then visiting with a summer program for North Dakotan high-school students, had them in their collection, so he was shocked when he came across a cabinet containing two stuffed pigeons, a male and a female, mounted in lifelike poses. He was overcome by awe, sadness and the birds’ physical beauty: their bright auburn breasts, slate-gray backs and the dusting of iridescence around their napes that, depending on the light and angle, appeared purple, fuchsia or green. Before his chaperones dragged him out of the room, Novak snapped a photograph with his disposable camera. The flash was too strong, however, and when the film was processed several weeks later, he was haunted to discover that the photograph hadn’t developed. It was blank, just a flash of white light.

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How to Resurrect a Wooly Mammoth on DIY TV

Scientists are getting closer to bringing back extinct species. But is it a good idea? In this illustrated explainer video, Daren explores the how, the why, and the what of de-extinction.

Brian Switek:

To bring back a species that no longer has a place in the world would be irresponsible and undercuts the moral imperative that deextinction advocates so often rely on to make their case. Indeed, one of the primary arguments for deextinction is that we must pay penance by restoring animals that previous generations of humans have wiped out, yet we’d only repeat our mistakes if we brought back a species without consideration of the creature’s future survival on a changing planet. Trying to replicate the Ice Age doesn’t make much sense when our species is hurtling the planet towards a greenhouse world.

(via The Promise and Pitfalls of Resurrection Ecology – Phenomena: Laelaps)

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The Brain Scoop - Episode 23
De-Extinction, Part 1 - How it works, kinda

‘De-extinction’ is a concept that has been popping up in a lot of scientific magazines recently, but what does it mean? Is this Jurassic Park all over again? Will I get to fulfill my dreams of riding a pterodactyl? 

WHY EFFORTS TO RESURRECT THE MAMMOTH WILL NOT ONLY SAVE THE ELEPHANTS, BUT ALSO GUARANTEE THE CONTINUED SURVIVAL AND EXPANSION OF THE HUMAN RACE

Attention Conservation Note: This is a substantial excerpt from the latest (De)Extinction Club newsletter - mixing pop culture culture references with cutting edge science, some colourful ranting and imaginative extrapolation  - Subscribe here for more like this delivered direct to your inbox

It was never a question of the Mammoth or the Elephant, we never had to choose. It was always an “and.” Science doesn’t discriminate between species. We can’t bring back the Mammoth without saving the Elephants as a direct result. Advances in genetics have a wide application beyond that anyway.

Think of resurrecting the Mammoth as the sweet demo, the killer app – that if we pull it off has the added bonus of allowing us to begin to restore the lost, ancient Ice Age ecology of the Arctic, the Mammoth Steppe, slow the permafrost thaw by doing so, stop it leaking methane and contributing to further climate chaos.

The great bulk of all research into genetic engineering involves human reproduction. What’s driving the return of the Mammoth will save our species too. Here’s a great article about the key technology that is enabling all these advances: CRISPR.

How does curing AIDS sound? Remember when that was the great marker of Doom, pre-Millennial humans? Then science and pharmacology caught up, and it’s been downgraded to just another awful, manageable disease. As much as any disease is manageable. But an actual cure, we’ve never had that. Until now, when we can just – probably – switch off the disease inside the embryo. Soon. Probably.

The other extreme is the headline grabbing work being done in China – who have a full superbabies program btw, and are pretty keen on taking full control of their own evolution and don’t have any cultural or religious problems with stem cells and such, unlike the still largely Christian-influenced nominally secular Western societies. See also: India. See two countries with a billion peeps each in ‘em and no problem with growth rates. (OK, China’s one-child policy kinda bit them in the ass, but…) Unlike the greying western nations. And that future prototype robot-human civilisation, Japan. It’s the couples in the West that are increasingly relying upon the help of science to conceive.

To put it simply by way of absurd reductionism then:

Vote Mammoth, Vote continued survival of the human race.

If that’s your thing.

Some specific examples then. Let’s start with a look at the DeExtinction Program for the Gastric Brooding Frog:

“They used an advanced technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer to insert dead genetic material from the extinct frog’s nucleus into the donor eggs of another species of living frog.”

Now I am not a reproductive specialist, nor do I in fact have any formal, or informal, biology training beyond taking the same Level 2 First Aid course every few years… But I can read and blockquote wikipedia and make inferences, right? I got top marks for basic reading and comprehension in school… iffffff I read the report card right.

So then, what’s Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer?

The process of somatic cell nuclear transplant involves two different cells. The first being a female gamete, known as the ovum (egg/oocyte). In human SCNT experiments, these eggs are obtained through consenting donors, many times utilizing ovarian stimulation. The second being a somatic cell, referring to the cells of the human body. Skin cells, fat cells, and liver cells are only a few examples. The nucleus of the donor egg cell is removed and discarded, leaving it 'deprogrammed.’ The nucleus of the somatic cell is also removed but is kept, the enucleated somatic cell is discarded. What is left is a lone somatic nucleus and an enucleated egg cell. These are then fused by squirting the somatic nucleus into the 'empty’ ovum. After being inserted into the egg, the somatic cell nucleus is reprogrammed by its host egg cell. The ovum, now containing the somatic cell’s nucleus, is stimulated with a shock and will begin to divide. The egg is now viable and capable of producing an adult organism containing all the necessary genetic information from just one parent.

This is how they cloned Dolly, the Sheep. How a South Korean company routinely clones dogs now, making that bank ($100K per puppy) to fund their own Super Science Mammoth Cloning DeExtinction Program. And…wait… they shock the cell to life?! That’s some Frankensteinian shit right there! Some state-of-the-art science-fictional condition material, right from the pages of Mary Shelley’s seminal work.

So how’s that working out? Bringing a seriously whacky frog back - Gastric. Brooding. Frog. Think about it for a second -  from extinction using only some intact DNA samples and a living host to provide donor eggs?

“The DNA is replicating but the embryos aren’t developing properly.

Along with the DNA from the extinct frog, the scientists found traces of the host frog’s supposedly de-activated DNA in the embryos and some of the cells… these two sets of instructions existing side by side could be confusing the embryo and holding up development.

They trialled the process on two still-living species and hit the same snag as when they tried to clone the extinct amphibian.”

As I previously mentioned, I AM NOT A REPRODUCTIVE SPECIALIST. However, it seems to me that Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer is a comparable to another complicated process of genetic engineering known as Mitochondrial Donation. Which

involves taking the nucleus of one egg and inserting it into the cytoplasm of another egg which has had its nucleus removed, but still contains mitochondrial DNA, and then fertilizing the hybrid egg with a sperm. The purpose of the procedure is to remove a nucleus from a cell with defective mitochondria and place it in a donor cell with healthy mitochondria, which after fertilization will contain a nucleus with genetic material from only the two parents

If my limited understanding is correct - and please do correct my science but preserve my analogies - the interventions we’ve discussed so far are taking place at different stages in the reproductive process. In the first one you take an existing egg and swap out the nucleus, then make it kickstart its cell division with 'a shock’. In the second, you swap out the nucleus of the unfertilized egg, then fertilize it, then nature takes back over.

Where I am going with this then - you’re wondering why am I learning basically biology rn? what has that got to do with me, other than being science of my becoming into this universe - is that efforts to bring the Gastric Brooding Frog back have a direct bearing on a new form of human reproduction; the so-called “three-parent babies” scenario, a therapeutic use of cloning just recently legalised in the UK:

The idea is to prevent certain genetic diseases being passed on to children… Mitochondrial diseases tend to strike in childhood and get steadily worse. They often prove fatal before adulthood. The parts of the body that need most energy are worst affected: the brain, muscles, heart and liver. Conditions include Leigh’s disease, progressive infantile poliodystrophy and Barth syndrome. Faulty mitochondria have also been linked to more common medical problems, including Parkinson’s, deafness, failing eyesight, epilepsy and diabetes.”

There are almost certainly going to be issues common to both these forms of genetic engineering that will be solved in the labs of the University of New South Wales (Australia), suitably documented and published and used to deliver healthy children in the UK, and whoever else adopts this “three parent” procedure.

How we doing so far? Building that connective tissue between that sexy new DeExtinction Science and, first of all, that oldest problem we’ve known, continuing our own survival against the forces of nature.

So let’s go back to China now - because you probably didn’t click through on that link I gave you earlier, and whose browser isn’t constantly piling up with all the wondrous and strange things of this singular time we live in??? - and look again at CRISPR, in more detail this time.

A technology being advanced by George Church and his team, amongst many others, but they in particular are doing some of the most cutting edge work, and only part of that is in engineering a Mammoth-like Asian Elephant.

This particular genetic repair procedure, as currently practised, operates on the fertilized egg. Carl Zimmer explains “editing human embryos”:

“But what if you didn’t have to wait until so late in the game to repair a broken gene? If a fertilized egg ended up with a defective gene, you could conceivably use CRISPR to fix the mistake. That single cell could then give rise to an entire healthy human with trillions of cells that all had the correct version of the gene.

Last month, a team of leading scientists–including pioneers in both gene therapy and CRISPR–declared that this would be a bad idea. “At present, the potential safety and efficacy issues arising from the use of this technology must be thoroughly investigated and understood before any attempts at human engineering are sanctioned, if ever, for clinical testing,” they declared in a piece they published in Science.

But meanwhile, a team of researchers led by Junju Huang at Sun Yat-sen University were testing out CRISPR on human embryos. Huang told Nature that both Nature and Science rejected the paper based on ethical objections.  So they ended up publishing the results in the journal Protein & Cell (open access, by the way).

The scientists tested out CRISPR as a form of embryonic gene therapy. Imagine an embryo had a mutation in a gene called beta-globin involved in making hemoglobin. It would develop into a person with the blood disorder beta-thalassemia.  Would it be possible to cure the embryo by rewriting the gene?”

And the short answer is: not yet, but SOON. Another technique in the toolkit to cure disease and deliver healthy human babies. All being made possible by DeExtinction research. Just to hammer the point home.

Let’s keep on a-hammering… Moving on down the ole human meat machine assembly line, which is clearly very much a work-in-progress. We are bootstrapping ourselves to godhood here, basically… Seizing the means of reproduction, no less! We get to: actually bringing a baby to term.

Aka: pregnancy.

History lesson o’clock. Once upon a time, not too long ago, IVF just by itself was a huge deal! So-called “test tube” babies were the cutting edge of  reproductive science in the 1970s.  Just fertilizing an egg with sperm outside the… ahem “traditional method”… this came with all sorts of ethical issues, and had the occasional really dodgy doctor doing it. Seriously. But praise the Myth of Progress, it’s an expensive, but normal everyday reality now for average middle class couples worldwide.

And yet… there’s still all kinds of dramas going on with regard to surrogate mothers being used in developing nations – read this awful story about the recent earthquake in Nepal for example. And we point out here that surrogates are frequently hosting embryos that are the end result of IVF. And treated as little more than organic baby farms, in far too many (ie any) cases.

Now, as it happens, one of the biggest problems facing the nascent field of Mammoth resurrection is that once you’ve actually got a viable cloned mammoth (or engineered simulacra) embryo you then need a host animal to carry it to term. This is basic biology, even I understand this. The obvious, logical host is the Asian Elephant.

Except - as everybody knows and so many are keen to emphasize without further reflection - they’re a super endangered species, so using them to breed a Mammoth instead of increasing their own population is beyond selfish. Also, they ovulate infrequently and it takes two years for a baby Elephant to come to term. So we’re talking a long iteration time here for a very much infant technology.

Solution? Build an artificial womb. This is just one more advance George Church and his team are working on.

“We are exploring methods to go from mammalian stems cells to embryos to babies, with inexpensive automated processes and high efficiency. If this works for mouse and pigs, then similar endeavors could be made for elephants.  This should help (rather than hurt) reproductive efforts for these precious species.  If we are successful in making cold-resistant versions of Asian elephants, then that might further help conservation efforts by allowing them to occupy locations with very low human population density and abundant vegetation.”

And so we conclude our initial tour of the interrelationship between the conservation of existing and the resurrection of previously existing. Between Human Reproduction Science and DeExtinction Science.

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And now the more speculative journey begins. Think of actual Mammoth DeExtinction as being the eventual end result of a “Moon Shot”. The actual moon landing that follows a sequence of successive technical innovations required to enable the rocket to even get off the ground to begin with. To even get on the damn launching pad.

In the process a far less exploitative, problematic solution to surrogacy is found. That’s just one technological innovation being developed. Eventually. There’s a whole extra set of issues still to be addressed; like the transmission of microbiota from host mother to clone child - and seriously, recreating mammoth feces is amongst these - and the list goes on… is being updated and amended, such is the nature of the scientific adventure.  Because this is how our civilisation’s technological capabilities progress. Step by incremental step; frequently largely correcting the errors of the previous advance. The future composts the past.

What was purely science fiction (like in, say, SyFy’s Helix) soon becomes just another part of the everyday science-fictional futurepresent pre-post-apocalyptic reality we call… what day is it? WHAT YEAR?!

It also presents technological solutions to potential disaster scenarios like, idk: near-term human extinction.

And ambitious adventures like: space colonisation.

Creation and Destruction.

This is (De)Extinction Club after all.

It is theorized that at apocalyptic points in the past the human population has dropped to ”as few as 15,000 humans alive at one time.”

This then is a mechanism to rebuild the human race. This is a clue to our own effective minimal viable population; be it to survive an extinction event or to stock the generation ships bound to distant stars. To settle a new planet. Or ring world. Pick your desired flavour of off-world habitat.

Enabling the effective management of existential risk – figuring out how to make safeguards like Russia’s planned DNA bank work, and join the seed bank in Svalbard as Gaia’s external backup file.

When Stephen Hawking isn’t spreading nonsense with his Fear of the Machines rants, he’s sensibly arguing it’s beyond time we became a multi-planet species. (What bias, you say?) And why does Elon Musk join in this chorus, literally sinking his fortune into starting up the off-world colonies, but simultaneously spouting all this human purist crapola? Too much Star Trek for that guy, I say. Kahhhhhhhhhhhhhnnn!!!!!

The thing about building a colony on Mars, or in Zero Gee, is that you get for real ‘space madness’ once the calcium in your bones starts dropping. And that’s like, just one of several major issues. We’ve evolved to be fit for Earth-like conditions. This, if you’ve been reading at all, is exactly the kind of thing that we can solve with the advance of genetic engineering – China totes is playing a long space game and building super babies… are they tinkering with solutions to this too? Well…

The original vision for genetic editing btw, back in the 1990s when it was more popularly called ‘gene therapy’, was to patch up the code of a fully grown human, not an embryo. They had some problems back then, but that’s largely being sorted since, and CRISPR, you’ll be shocked to find, will come to play a part in that. Tastey tastey human enhancement viruses will soon be on the menu.

How would you begin to tweak the human genome for an extraterrestrial life? Maybe you’d start by referencing the Neanderthal genome. Maybe our future in space lies in borrowing from extinct hominid lineages. The Neanderthal leg bones found have a higher density… would that delay space madness long enough to found a workable colony? What else would you unlock through epigenetics, as an entirely Martian generation is born?

Does the fabled “new life for humanity in the off-world colonies” lie in us drawing directing upon our work in making Asian Elephants “Mammoth-like”? By extending their potential habitat range and increasing their survivability in doing so, we in turn can become “Neanderthal or Denisovan-enough” for the environment of Mars and beyond.

Would a more such robust physique make us better adapted to… idk, crew the mining facilities within the tolerable range of Jupiter’s atmosphere? Or fly off to a Super Earth?

It’s worth pointing out here that the entire idea of the Cyborg originally revolved around transforming the human body for a life in space, using all available technological means. Applying CRISPR to tweak our genome in such a manner is merely continuing on a tradition from a more utopian time… you know, when the US Space Program was staffed with Nazi Rocket Scientists and practicing witches and would dream of turning a person into part mechanical, part pharmacological being.

It was always the Dark Extropian Age, we just started giving it that name!

<Insert found-footage style montage from inside the Taikonaut training centres>

We can only imagine what lies ahead of us with all these developments. DARPA sure are, and seem pretty keen on having an actual Super Soldier Program.

But for all the fun and horror and cheap spec fic movies this speculation enables, the immediate point, as Ramez Naam points out, is that we get healthy children long before a successful Captain America takes the stage:

“Using gene editing to create ‘superhumans’ will be tremendously harder, riskier, and less likely to be embraced by parents than using it to prevent disease.”

The current efforts at cloning that are being successful right now are the ones where we’ve mapped out in detail the genetic sequences of the host species – right now that’s cats and dogs and cattle. And us.

The more species we try to bring back, the more host species we have to map to do so. The more we understand them, the better we can save them all!

Sequencing the Mammoth then is just one step, but a vital one, to be repeated on a case by case basis as we go. That necessarily proceeds in lockstep with advancing our knowledge of its host, the Asian Elephant. Even if a candidate Mammoth-like embryo is never generated, if the whole project stalls at Phase 1, the research and study required of its potential host in getting even that far will be invaluable in aiding its preservation and, we can only pray, restoration.

As I hope I’m demonstrating, the more people working on such efforts as these, the better for everyone, ultimately. Just remember: “you cannot clone from stone.” Reactivating ancestral traits, on the other hand, may have (vestigial) legs.

One last, big blockquote to drill this in. For you to skim over now, then come back to later - Will Cloning Ever Save Endangered Animals? [2013] (emphasis mine)

“Many researchers agree that, at present, cloning is not a feasible or effective conservation strategy. First of all, some conservationists point out, cloning does not address the reasons that many animals become endangered in the first place—namely, hunting and habitat destruction. Even if cloning could theoretically help in truly desperate situations, current cloning techniques are simply too ineffective to make much of a difference. Compared with cloning domestic species—particularly cattle, which have been successfully cloned for years to duplicate desirable traits—cloning endangered species is far more difficult for a number of reasons.

Successful cloning generally involves at least three essential components: DNA from the animal to be cloned; a viable egg to receive that DNA; and a mother to gestate the resulting embryo. Often, hundreds of embryos and attempted pregnancies are needed to produce even a few clones. Scientists usually have a poor understanding of endangered animals’ reproductive physiology, which makes it too risky to extract a sufficient number of eggs from that species or rely on females of that species to give birth to clones.

Although they are keenly aware of these problems, Martins and his colleagues, as well as a few other scientists around the world, think that efforts to archive the genetic information of endangered wildlife are worthwhile. Some researchers remain optimistic that cloning will become a useful tool for conservation in the future. Optimists point to recent successes cloning wild mammals using closely related domestic species, improved techniques for preventing developmental abnormalities in a cloned embryo, better neonatal care for newborn clones and in vitro fertilization made possible by stem cells derived from frozen tissue.

Some of the most successful attempts to clone endangered animals in recent years have involved two of the most beloved domestic species—cats and dogs. At the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, Martha Gomez and her colleagues have created many African wildcat clones since the mid-2000s, using domestic cats as surrogate mothers. Gomez says eight clones have survived into adulthood so far and are all healthy today. She attributes her success, in part, to the fact that wildcats and domestic cats are much more closely related to each other than are most wild and domestic species paired for the purpose of cloning. She and her team have also learned to increase success rates with caesarian sections—to spare clones the stress of a typical birth—and to keep newborn clones in intensive care for a few weeks, as though they were premature babies. In 2008, B. C. Lee of Seoul National University in Korea and his colleagues achieved similar success using domestic dogs to create three healthy male gray wolf clones. Lee’s team had previously created two female gray wolf clones. All five animals survived into adulthood, Lee confirms.

Working with black-footed cats, which are native to Africa and listed as “Vulnerable” on the Red List, Gomez is now focusing on a method of cloning that differs from nuclear transfer. She is trying to transform adult cells from black-footed cats into stem cells and subsequently induce those stem cells to become sperm and eggs. Then, through in vitro fertilization or similar techniques, she could impregnate domestic cats with black-footed cat embryos. Alternatively, stem cell-derived sperm and eggs could be used to impregnate females of the endangered species.

To say that this approach is technically challenging would be an understatement, but researchers have made impressive progress. In 2011 Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and her colleagues produced stem cells from the frozen skin cells of two endangered species—the northern white rhino and a baboonlike primate known as a drill. And in 2012 Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine and colleagues turned skin cells from adult mice into stem cells, which they then transformed into viable eggs. After fertilizing the eggs with sperm in test tubes, the researchers implanted the embryos in surrogate mother mice that gave birth to healthy and fertile offspring.  

“I’m not saying cloning is going to save endangered species,” Gomez says, “but I am still a believer of cloning as another tool. It’s not easy, though. The research moves slow.”

To repeat: the more species we can study and map now, the greater we can understand them all, the better we can work to prevent their extinction and understand how to literally bank their survival – factors like: minimal viable population ranges. One DNA sample per species is not how you build an Ark. Or a colony ship.

This is where the final part of cutting edge conservation efforts comes in, amongst all the other advanced genetic rescue techniques being developed. It’s increasingly understood that biodiversity and population sizes are just as important an issue as a species completely vanishing, in terms of overall ecological health. Just like so many things, we can lose an animal gradually, and then suddenly, but the damage is done before they’re gone. Trial programs such as efforts to restore and  increase the diversity of the Black Footed Ferret, bringing it back from the brink of extinction, involve taking – seriously – museum specimens and using them as ‘parents’ for clones. This is an advanced use of the Somatic Nuclear Cell Transfer technique already discussed.

Jobs of the future will include looking in museum basements and shelves for usable DNA samples, like we once scoured archival libraries for lost films and tv shows. Just this time its for species not entertainment. [Mumble mumble. Some form of Jurassic Park reference. Etc.]

This is the technology that once sufficiently advanced can be applied to bring back another charismatic creature, the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), and in doing so begin a program to restore Australia to its previously more healthy and higher carbon sinking, pre European Colonisation state. To successively repair all the habitats of the Earth and arrest climate chaos is our aim! Organic geoengineering to the rescue!!! Let the great trophic cascade commence. Save the whales and bring back the wolves. It’s beaver time. Release the Lynx! Turtle power, y’all! These are just some of the key ecological engineers we just need to enlist to our cause, to restock the Earth with, to rewild it. Only then can we take off across the galaxy. Probably. Hopefully. It’s a plan.

There is no downside here!

Just look at the currently active and planned DeExtinction Programs (via Beth Shapiro’s Long Now lecture):

Each one will have their own unique problems, whose solutions will feed back into the greater scientific tool-kit, and inform each other. Help guarantee our own survival and treat ever more diseases, but also offer us a chance to be more responsible apex predators and become better caretakers of this world. For starters.

As I love to repeat: this is how we begin to repair the planet. Only through its near destruction at our own species hands are we being given the chance to learn how Earth’s natural systems really function. Such is both our bleak legacy and bright opportunity! Our grim inheritance can become the most ambitious civilisational, multi-planetary and beyond!, project we’ve ever dreamed of. We can use this dark time to take charge of our destinies on a scale that ranges from the genetic to the ecological. The choice is simple: we can either die off with the planet that birthed us, or be the bringers of life to new corners of space. Our future as Galactic Engineers awaits!!!

Here’s to 60 years of trying to pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid” -- 5 TEDx Talks on DNA

(Photo credit: Flickr user Saynine)

The world recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the complex cellular instructions known as DNA. Currently, scientists across the globe are doing a lot more than showing off computer-generated spinning double helix modelsthey are using DNA to do almost unbelievable things – like create tailor-made microbes and resurrected mammoths.

Below, 5 talks on the wonder of deoxyribonucleic acid.

Sex, evolution, and innovation: Frances Arnold at TEDxUSC
We all know that organisms combine genes to create offspring. But what if we could harness those self-replicating processes and make them work for us, asks scientist Frances Arnold. At TEDxUSC, Arnold takes us through a world of possibilities, from testing drugs on microbes to aiding cancer drugs with engineered cells.

What does your genome reveal about you?: Gilean McVean at TEDxWarwick
The first sequenced human genome took years of work and billions of dollars to complete. Today, a person’s genome can be sequenced overnight for a just few thousand dollars. At TEDxWarwick, geneticist Gilean McVean examines the consequences of this technological advance and what it means for our understanding of disease.

How to bring a mammoth back to life: Beth Shapiro at TEDxDeExtinction
Bringing ancient mammoths back to life is assuredly a daunting task, but a major roadblock has been the lack of a complete mammoth genetic sequence due to deterioration over time. Scientist Beth Shaprio reveals the novel approaches that she and her colleagues are taking to revive ancient mammoths.

Creating algae factories for sustainable fuel: Michiel Mathijs at TEDxGhent
In this short and sweet talk from TEDxGhent, Michiel Mathijs elaborates on his plan to take species of algae, one of the most common life forms on the planet, and biologically engineer them to produce oil for fuel. Along the way, Mathijs addresses concerns over bioengineering, describing scientists as not composers, but the “DJs of life,” mixing and matching genetic material.

Genetically evolved technology: Luke Bawazer at TEDxWarwick
Inspired by evolution in the natural world, Luke Bawazer’s work incorporates a type of “synthetic DNA” to test and improve materials like computer chips. According to Bawazer, this type of man-made evolution might one day lead to products that naturally adapt to suit the needs of consumers.

Watch on scienceyoucanlove.tumblr.com

Bringing back extinct animals! 


I’m going to be posting a few of these vids, a little overhyped, Ich weiss, but I find these things facinatting and I enjoy listening to them while cleaning the house or writing letters! 

My latest piece on Scientific American - The Narcissism of De-Extinction:

So not only are we trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn’t seem to exist, but we’ve picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: the moment when people first started paying attention. The only species we are capable of resurrecting are those that we know went extinct, those large and common enough to leave fossils, and those that we watched die off. So you see a familiar cadre of de-extinction candidates on the list: mammoths, passenger pigeons, thylacine tigers. These are all big animals that we are sure used to be around because they are large enough to leave an impact on human culture—or, as speaker Stanley Temple put it later in the afternoon, “species that I lamented as a boy.”

This suddenly is less about the species themselves and more about us.

Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

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The Brain Scoop: Episode 24
De-Extinction, Part II: Yes, no, maybe so? 

Watch Part I where we discuss some of the science behind ‘de-extinction’.

This topic isn’t quite as black-and-white as explained in the videos - we have no way of knowing what would happen should we bring back large populations of these animals, but it’s not even certain that would be the case.  The technology required to 'de-extinct’ a species could hold the answer in ongoing conservation efforts.  Bringing back a species like the gastric brooding frog could provide valuable insights into how species reproduce, and it’s impossible to say how that information could influence how we think about animal behavior and physiology, or even species conservation in the future.

Without museums like ours, we would not even be able to entertain the notion of bringing back extinct species.  Museums act not only as physical repositories but genetic ones as well.  When a large sample size is needed to reconstruct the DNA of the extinct passenger pigeon, scientists and researchers turn to museum collections for tissue samples.  It’s another example of how impossible it is to predict the use or need for a collection as research advances and new technology emerges. 

There are a lot of positive and negative implications to pursuing the science behind de-extinction: if you have any input, reblog with comments and I’ll be sure to read them! 

The Eurasian lynx vanished for nearly a century from most of Europe, but it has made a big comeback in the radioactive exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in northern Ukraine.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, and abandoned Soviet collective farms reverted to the region’s natural forests and swamps. Afterwards, all large European mammals have found the zone to be an inviting habitat. It is Chernobyl’s enduring paradox that the absence of people has made the land safe for wild animals, despite radiation, with species diversity and abundance far greater within the zone’s fenced borders than outside them. Its vast, wild expanses are especially inviting for lynx.

Watch on tedx.tumblr.com

Hendrik Poinar: Bring back the woolly mammoth!

Today’s featured TED Talk was filmed at TEDxDeExtinction, a TEDx event held this March that brought 25 experts from across the arts and sciences to National Geographic headquarters to discuss “de-extinction” – the science of bringing extinct species back from the dead. 

In this talk, geneticist Hendrik Poinar tells us about something that seems like it could only be a dream: the quest to engineer a creature that looks very much like our furry friend, the woolly mammoth. But the first step, to sequence the woolly genome, is nearly complete. And it’s huge.

But TEDxDeExtinction was about more than just the mammoth.
There was talk of reviving the long-gone passenger pigeon, of investigating extinct frogs whose eggs hatched in their mouth, and a look into the beautiful photography of one of National Geographic’s prized photographers.

For a complete round-up of the event, read our post, Frogs giving birth through the mouth, DNA retrieved from the frost, and why Jurassic Park just won’t happen: 5 takeaways from TEDxDeExtinction”  or check out the TED Blog’s coverage of the event. 

And don’t forget to watch Hendrik’s talk up there – it’s pretty awesome.

To Roam Again The Pyrenees: Scientists Plan To Clone Extinct Mountain Goat

Spanish scientists are checking in on a batch of cells, frozen in liquid nitrogen 14 years ago. The cells belonged to the last bucardo, a Pyrenean sub-species of mountain goat that went extinct in 2000, and researchers have received funding to see if the cells might be all right for a round of cloning, the BBC reports.

If Celia’s (her name was Celia) cells are in good shape, a team of scientists will attempt to make embryo Celia clones and implant them in female goats, to make new bucardos for a world that hasn’t seen them in 14 years.

There’s no “bucardo recovery plan” yet, one of the scientists involved in the effort told the BBC. Scientists will discuss a plan for growing a bucardo population if the Celia clones prove viable. Clones are often difficult to bring to term: A bucardo clone born in 2003, the world’s first extinct animal brought back to life, died minutes after being born.

Should Celia’s clones survive, the BBC describes a couple of options scientists have for upping the population beyond just one poor goat’s genome.

The idea of bringing extinct species back again garnered a lot of attention this year. Genetic techniques are getting closer to being able to make this reality for several species, not just bucardos, asNational Geographic reported in April. Check out the National Geographic link for some arguments for and against so-called “de-extinction.”

1898 Illustration of Bucardo  Illustration by Joseph Wolf, from the book Wild oxen, sheep & goats of all lands, living and extinct source

The near-extinct American chestnut looks set to make a comeback. Genetically modified trees, which are resistant to a deadly fungus that has decimated the species, have produced the first resistant chestnuts. From these seeds, countless resistant trees could be grown in the wild.

An estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) once covered the US, accounting fora quarter of all US hardwood trees. But in around 1900, a lethal fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica was accidentally imported in chestnut trees from Asia, and by the 1950s it had almost completely wiped out the American chestnut.

Over the past 20 years, the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project has been trying to turn the situation around. Led by William Powell andCharles Maynard of the State University of New York in Syracuse, the team has used genetic engineering to create a strain of fungus-resistant chestnuts called Darling4.

The modified trees contain a gene from wheat calledOxO, which makes an enzyme called oxalate oxidase that destroys the toxic oxalic acid made by the fungus, preventing cankers from forming on the tree. By-products from the enzyme’s action help the tree’s own natural defences to fight off the fungus.

The ultimate goal is to release the modified chestnuts into the wild. The team planted the first Darling4 chestnut in 2006, and there are now over 1000 modified trees at various sites in New York state, says Maynard.

“We hope to obtain regulatory approval for trees to be grown outside permitted plots within three to five years, at which point our transgenic trees could potentially be planted anywhere in the US,” says Maynard. “Once approved, they’ll be distributed to the public in a not-for-profit programme to restore the American chestnut tree.”

The first groaner of the TEDxDeExtinction conference cropped up less than an hour into the program.  Paleontologist Michael Archer was on stage, wrapping up his talk on possibly recreating the gastric brooding frog and the thylacine – two species totally lost from Australia in recent time. Archer laid out the technological particulars of the plans, as well as where the animals might live, but at the end he took a turn for the transcendentalist in justifying the difficult endeavor to resurrect these creatures. Since our species played a prominent role in wiping out both species, Archer argued, we have an obligation to “restore the balance of nature that we have upset.” If I had brought a flask with me, I might have taken a strengthening sip of whiskey right then….

This article is definitely controversial, but he does highlight some major points (some of the oft-overlooked ones), and no matter what stance you take, this is worth the read.  Also read the comments between Brian Switek and Carl Zimmer,  I also saw one by a Douglas Henderson (the famed paleoartist?).