It’s happening again, scientists watch a Sci-Fi movie and then a few years later, they’ve figure out a way to recreate the outlandish ideas in real life. Who ever said Hollywood was good for nothing. Well, a lot of people actually, but they were wrong!
Remember how the fictional billionaire John Hammond resurrected the extinct dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park? Now real paleontologists are piecing together the complete genomes of long-dead species such as the woolly mammoth and the Neanderthals in an effort to bring them back to life.
Well-frozen DNA works best, they say. A team led by Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University, US, and Tom Gilbert at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, is working on the genome of woolly mammoths preserved in the Siberian permafrost.
The technology is already there, so it won’t be reinventing the wheel, so to speak. Scientists have already completely deciphered the gene sequences for several living species, including humans, dogs, and mice. However, it does work a little differently in the case of long extinct species. Some scientists aren’t sure whether or not it's feasible.
Max Planck researcher Svante Paabo, who together with colleagues, is aiming to assemble a Neanderthal genome from bones preserved in arid caves, as noted in a paper appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Paabo says that it will not be too difficult to piece together much of the original genetic instructions. However, he is unsure whether the animals can be resurrected completely. Others are more hopeful.
"Retrieval of DNA from ancient specimens is relatively easy now," said Alan Cooper, of the University of Adelaide in Australia.
"I think it's definitely feasible to assemble these genomes. But it's going to be extremely hard work," National Geographic quoted Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, as saying.
Cooper says that the most basic problem is that living animals package their DNA with proteins that help it wind up into chromosomes. This type of genetic packaging is crucial to making the DNA function properly, which is absent in these fossils.
Willerslev however, believes it is possible to bring back an extinct species like a mammoth if an extremely well preserved cell is found.
"That's extremely unlikely to happen, because all parts of a cell break down over time, even in mammoths that have been encased in ice since they died. But, researchers working on cloning have contacted me wanting to get a hold of mammoth tissue so they could try to clone a mammoth," he said.
According to Hendrick Poinar of McMaster University in Canada, "it's theoretically possible" to recreate a woolly mammoth.
"I think it's going to be done at some point. Once you have the genome of a mammoth, you could compare it with the genome of its closest relative, the Asian elephant. Then you could genetically engineer the elephant DNA, point by point, so that it matches the mammoth DNA," he said.
"Then, by inserting this modified DNA into an elephant's egg cell, and implanting it in an elephant's womb, you could create a modified elephant that's nearly identical to the original mammoth. Or it could become possible to make entire chromosomes from scratch. I wouldn't be surprised if, in ten years, you'd be able to synthesize chromosome-length DNA," he said.
"Five years ago everybody was saying you'd never be able to sequence the genomes of extinct animals ... but here we are. We're not that far away now."
So here’s what I’m wondering, if they are able to resurrect Neanderthals, will ABC get to use them in their proposed Geico Spin-off Caveman sitcom?
One more question, if this technology proves viable, can we stop worrying about the Holocene mass extinction period we’re in the middle of? I mean sure, most forms of life will be dead by the next century, but we can always bring back the ones we really like, right?