by Beth Shapiro
Publication date: April 6, 2015
Category: Nonfiction / popular science
Summary (from the publisher):
Could extinct species, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? The science says yes. In How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, walks readers through the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used–today–to resurrect the past. Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research–as well as those of fellow experts such as Svante Pääbo, George Church, and Craig Venter–Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal?
Using DNA collected from remains as a genetic blueprint, scientists aim to engineer extinct traits–traits that evolved by natural selection over thousands of years–into living organisms. But rather than viewing de-extinction as a way to restore one particular species, Shapiro argues that the overarching goal should be the revitalization and stabilization of contemporary ecosystems. For example, elephants with genes modified to express mammoth traits could expand into the Arctic, re-establishing lost productivity to the tundra ecosystem.
Looking at the very real and compelling science behind an idea once seen as science fiction, How to Clone a Mammoth demonstrates how de-extinction will redefine conservation’s future.
Michael Crichton started it with his novel Jurassic Park. The idea that we could resurrect an extinct species using ancient DNA–popularly called “de-extinction”–captured the popular imagination. As techniques for sequencing DNA improved, real-life scientists started to take this idea seriously.
But after reading scientist Beth Shapiro’s excellent book on the topic, I now understand that de-extinction isn’t what most people think.
In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Shapiro walks through the steps to de-extinction, in chapters such as “Select a species” and “Reconstruct the genome.” Before reading this book, I thought I basically understood the process: find some ancient DNA; sequence it; put it in some kind of egg; implant in a host mother; birth a baby.
It’s so much more complicated than that.
Despite the enthusiasm that some people have for bringing back charismatic megafauna like the wooly mammoth (a Russian entrepreneur is already preparing Pleistocene Park, a Siberian habitat where the modern world’s first mammoths can live), this book explains that in one sense, it cannot be done. DNA doesn’t last very long. Even with mammoth specimens well-preserved in ice, and only thousands of years old, the DNA that remains is fragmentary at best. And this is just the first of multiple technical obstacles that seem insurmountable.
So why is this brilliant young UC professor dedicated to the science of ancient DNA and de-extinction? Because while we cannot bring back the mammoth (or any other long-lost species), we can bring back, or rather, create, a mammoth-like creature using pieces of the original mammoth’s genome added to an existing relative–the elephant.
Why bother, then? Shapiro argues that de-extinction efforts should focus on restoring ecosystems, not individual species. The wooly mammoth, for example, played a crucial role in helping the tundra flourish. Research suggests that the trampling and grazing activity of large herbivores (like mammoths) can convert barren tundra into arctic grassland. Even if we can’t bring back the mammoth, we perhaps can create a cold-tolerant Asian elephant that lives in the tundra and replaces the role in the ecosystem lost when the last mammoth died.
This was one of several important messages in this book that kept me thinking for some time after reading. Another takeaway that changed my way of seeing things was Shapiro’s discussion of how very hard it is to take a species from captivity and return it to a wild habitat. The idea that as long as we keep a few animals alive in zoos we will always have the option in the future to restore them to nature is false in most cases.
How to Clone a Mammoth is thorough, thought-provoking, interesting, and written for lay people (though a keen interest in biology helps). It explores the science and the ethics of de-extinction, discusses the media’s role in this topic, and describes the author’s adventures in wild places hunting for frozen mammoth bones. Should we invest in de-extinction and try to “bring back” lost species? After reading this book, you’ll be equipped to argue one way or the other.