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De-extinction: Crackpot idea or only a hint of astonishing new biotechnology?

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mummified woolly bay mammoth, found 2007/Matt Howry

(We promise not to talk about Jurassic Park.)

From the New York Times Magazine:

This question of “human ingenuity” approaches one of the least commented upon but most significant points about de-extinction. The term “de-extinction” is misleading. Passenger pigeons will not rise from the grave. Instead, band-tailed-pigeon DNA will be altered to resemble passenger-pigeon DNA. But we won’t know how closely the new pigeon will resemble the extinct pigeon until it is born; even then, we’ll only be able to compare physical characteristics with precision. Our understanding of the passenger pigeon’s behavior derives entirely from historical accounts. While many of these, including John James Audubon’s chapter on the pigeon in “Ornithological Biography,” are vividly written, few are scientific in nature. “There are a million things that you cannot predict about an organism just from having its genome sequence,” said Ed Green, a biomolecular engineer who works on genome-sequencing technology in the U.C.S.C. paleogenomics lab. Shapiro said: “It’s just one guess. And it’s not even a very good guess.”

Shapiro is no more sanguine about the woolly-mammoth project. “You’re never going to get a genetic clone of a mammoth,” she said. “What’s going to happen, I imagine, is that someone, maybe George Church, is going to insert some genes into the Asian-elephant genome that make it slightly hairier. That would be just a tiny portion of the genome manipulated, but a few years later, you have a thing born that is an elephant, only hairier, and the press will write, ‘George Church has cloned a mammoth!’ ” Church, though he plans to do more than just alter the gene for hairiness, concedes the point. “I would like to have an elephant that likes the cold weather,” he told me. “Whether you call it a ‘mammoth’ or not, I don’t care.”

The processes they propose to use (and it is anyone’s guess whether they will work) are fascinating, but some are asking, why stop at bringing back extinct animals?

What is coming will go well beyond the resurrection of extinct species. For millenniums, we have customized our environment, our vegetables and our animals, through breeding, fertilization and pollination. Synthetic biology offers far more sophisticated tools. The creation of novel organisms, like new animals, plants and bacteria, will transform human medicine, agriculture, energy production and much else. De-extinction “is the most conservative, earliest application of this technology,” says Danny Hillis, a Long Now board member and a prolific inventor who pioneered the technology that is the basis for most supercomputers. Hillis mentioned Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the content of a new medium is the old medium: that each new technology, when first introduced, recreates the familiar technology it will supersede. Early television shows were filmed radio shows. Early movies were filmed stage plays. Synthetic biology, in the same way, may gain widespread public acceptance through the resurrection of lost animals for which we have nostalgia. “Using the tool to recreate old things,” Hillis said, “is a much more comfortable way to get engaged with the power of the tool.”

“By the end of this decade we’ll seem incredibly conservative,” Brand said. “A lot of this stuff is going to become part of the standard tool kit. I would guess that within a decade or two, most of the major conservation organizations will have de-extinction as part of the portfolio of their activities.” He said he hoped to see the birth of a baby woolly mammoth in his lifetime. The opening line of the first Whole Earth Catalog was “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand has revised this motto to: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” De-extinction is a good way to practice.

If you need to practice, you are not a god.

Curiously, Jurassic Park author (okay, okay) Michael Crichton called consensus science an extremely pernicious development. And aspiring mammoth cloner George Church praised Steve Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.

Maybe they could recreate the Cambrian explosion? Talk about synergy.

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2 Replies to “De-extinction: Crackpot idea or only a hint of astonishing new biotechnology?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    It is important to note the limits to such research. Even Venter’s work, which was severely overblown by the media as ‘creating life’, was, in reality, fairly modest in its technical feat in that they transplanted DNA they had ‘copied’ from one bacteria into a another very similar bacteria:

    “This is not life from scratch,” Venter says,,,
    ” Because M. genitalium has an extremely slow growth rate, we turned to two faster-growing mycoplasma species, M. mycoides subspecies capri (GM12) as donor, and M. capricolum subspecies capricolum (CK) as recipient.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-440685

    Is Craig Venter’s Synthetic Cell Really Life? – July 2010
    Excerpt: David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ally-life/

    Stephen Meyer Discusses Craig Venter’s “Synthetic Life” on CBN – video
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....35991.html

    The reason why there are severe limits in what they can do with this type of research is because information belongs as much, if not more, to cell body than it does to linear sequence of DNA. Thus the species have to be very similar (of the same lineage) for DNA transplant to have a chance of working:

    “There is now considerable evidence that genes alone do not control development. For example when an egg’s genes (DNA) are removed and replaced with genes (DNA) from another type of animal, development follows the pattern of the original egg until the embryo dies from lack of the right proteins. (The rare exceptions to this rule involve animals that could normally mate to produce hybrids.) The Jurassic Park approach of putting dinosaur DNA into ostrich eggs to produce a Tyrannosaurus rex makes exciting fiction but ignores scientific fact.”
    The Design of Life – William Dembski, Jonathan Wells Pg. 50

    “Live memory” of the cell, the other hereditary memory of living systems – 2005
    Excerpt: To understand this notion of “live memory”, its role and interactions with DNA must be resituated; indeed, operational information belongs as much to the cell body and to its cytoplasmic regulatory protein components and other endogenous or exogenous ligands as it does to the DNA database. We will see in Section 2, using examples from recent experiments in biology, the principal roles of “live memory” in relation to the four aspects of cellular identity, memory of form, hereditary transmission and also working memory.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15888340

    Not Junk After All—Conclusion – August 29, 2013
    Excerpt: Many scientists have pointed out that the relationship between the genome and the organism — the genotype-phenotype mapping — cannot be reduced to a genetic program encoded in DNA sequences. Atlan and Koppel wrote in 1990 that advances in artificial intelligence showed that cellular operations are not controlled by a linear sequence of instructions in DNA but by a “distributed multilayer network” [150]. According to Denton and his co-workers, protein folding appears to involve formal causes that transcend material mechanisms [151], and according to Sternberg this is even more evident at higher levels of the genotype-phenotype mapping [152].
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....onclusion/

    Extreme Genome Repair – 2009
    Excerpt: If its naming had followed, rather than preceded, molecular analyses of its DNA, the extremophile bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans might have been called Lazarus. After shattering of its 3.2 Mb genome into 20–30 kb pieces by desiccation or a high dose of ionizing radiation, D. radiodurans miraculously reassembles its genome such that only 3 hr later fully reconstituted nonrearranged chromosomes are present, and the cells carry on, alive as normal.,,,
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pm.....MC3319128/

    In Embryo Development, Non-DNA Information Is at Least as Important as DNA – Jonathan Wells – May 2012
    Excerpt: Evidence shows that non-DNA developmental information can be inherited in several ways. For example, it can be inherited through chromatin modifications, which affect gene expression without altering underlying DNA sequences. Another example is cytoplasmic inheritance, which involves cytoskeletal patterns and localization of intracellular molecules. Still another example is cortical inheritance, which involves membrane patterns.
    – per evolution news and views

    Not in the Genes: Embryonic Electric Fields – Jonathan Wells – December 2011
    Excerpt: although the molecular components of individual sodium-potassium channels may be encoded in DNA sequences, the three-dimensional arrangement of those channels — which determines the form of the endogenous electric field — constitutes an independent source of information in the developing embryo.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....54071.html

    What Do Organisms Mean? Stephen L. Talbott – Winter 2011
    Excerpt: Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin once described how you can excise the developing limb bud from an amphibian embryo, shake the cells loose from each other, allow them to reaggregate into a random lump, and then replace the lump in the embryo. A normal leg develops. Somehow the form of the limb as a whole is the ruling factor, redefining the parts according to the larger pattern. Lewontin went on to remark: “Unlike a machine whose totality is created by the juxtaposition of bits and pieces with different functions and properties, the bits and pieces of a developing organism seem to come into existence as a consequence of their spatial position at critical moments in the embryo’s development. Such an object is less like a machine than it is like a language whose elements… take unique meaning from their context.[3]”,,,
    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/.....nisms-mean

    An Electric Face: A Rendering Worth a Thousand Falsifications – September 2011
    Excerpt: The video suggests that bioelectric signals presage the morphological development of the face. It also, in an instant, gives a peak at the phenomenal processes at work in biology. As the lead researcher said, “It’s a jaw dropper.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VULjzX__OM

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    corrected link:

    9:30 minute mark
    Stephen Meyer Discusses Craig Venter’s “Synthetic Life” on CBN – video
    http://www.cbn.com/tv/1430349359001

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