Frogs giving birth through the mouth, DNA retrieved from the frost, and why Jurassic Park just won’t happen: 5 takeaways from TEDxDeExtinction

What happens when you bring together an award-winning science journalist, a Harvard geneticist, the director of a “frozen zoo” of cryopreserved animal DNA, one of the scientists behind a mission to clone a wooly mammoth, and a 26-year-old dedicated to resurrecting a long-extinct breed of pigeon? TEDxDeExtinction, of course.

Last Friday, 25 speakers — biologists, geneticists, researchers, conservationists, and thinkers of all kinds — met at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington D.C. to explore the hows, whys, and what ifs of “de-extinction” — the mind-boggling science of reviving extinct species from the dead.

Below, 5 takeaways from this day of pondering whether a pet Tasmanian tiger is possible, or a herd of wooly mammoths in the 21st century is a good idea. And, of course, thoughts on Jurassic Park:

  1. "You can’t clone from stone." Sorry, guys, no dinos: When it comes to de-extinction, dinosaurs are just not happening. Journalist Carl Zimmer (author of National Geographic’s April cover story on de-extinction) explained how DNA breaks down over time — has a half-life, so to speak — and as time has passed, dinosaur DNA has gone extinct, just like the dinos themselves. Or as Robert Lanza put it, "You can’t clone from stone."

  2. Once upon a time, there were frogs who swallowed their eggs, incubated them in their stomach, and gave birth via their mouth. They’re extinct now, but they might be coming back — thanks to TEDxDeExtinction speaker Michael Archer and his team of researchers at University of New South Wales in Australia. At the event, Michael explained how his team used preserved DNA of the  frog, Rheobatrachus silus, to create the first living embryo of an extinct species, implanted into the eggs of a different species of frog. An amazing feat for sure.

  3. The mammoth genome is almost at full completion, according to molecular evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, who works sequencing the genome via samples extracted from excavated, frozen remains. This mapping is key to an eventual attempt to “de-extinct” a mammoth, which would bring the animal to chilly areas like Siberia.
  4. There is such a title as molecular paleontologist, and Beth Shapiro has it. The adventurer scientists travels the Arctic collecting mammoth, horse, and extinct giant bear bones revealed by melting permafrost. She then extracts ancient DNA from these bones, studying it to figure out why some species die out when others don’t — especially after the last Ice Age. At TEDxDeExtinction, she explained how this extracted DNA could help scientists revive these ancient creatures from the past into the present (or, really — future).

  5. The very first “de-extinction” was of the bucardo, a type of Spanish goat. Soon before the last bucardo’s death, a team of scientists captured the animal and took tissue samples for preservation. After the goat’s death, and, ultimately, the species’ extinction — these samples were used by a team of scientists, including TEDxDeExtinction speaker Alberto Fernández-Arias to “de-extinct” the goat, using a domestic (and alive) goat as a surrogate. In 2003, a baby bucardo was born, but only lived for ten minutes.

For more information on TEDxDeExtinction, visit their website, and for more on “de-extinction” science, check out TEDxDeExtinction speaker Carl Zimmer’s feature story in National Geographic, “Bringing Them Back to Life.”

(Photos: top, ANT Photo Library/Science Source; Bottom left, passenger pigeon, Bradley’s Animal Place; Bottom right, El retorno del bucardo)

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