Dear Earthtalk: What is the 'de-extinction' movement all about?

Position:Long Now Foundation's Revive & Restore

Dear Earthtalk: What is the "de-extinction" movement all about?

--Bill Mitchell, New York, NY

De-extinction--bringing back extinct animal and plant species--is a term that conservation biologists and environmentalists have been bandying about for a decade or so. But only recently have advances in genetic sequencing and molecular biology transformed de-extinction from theory into something that we are all likely to see in our own lifetimes.

Or so Revive & Restore, a project of the Stewart Brand's California-based non-profit Long Now Foundation, likes to think. The group is creating a movement around de-extinction, and is taking the lead on efforts to bring back the passenger pigeon while helping out on other ongoing efforts to restore other extinct species including European aurochs, Pyrenean ibexes, American chestnut trees, Tasmanian tigers, California condors, even wooly mammoths.

The main rationale behind bringing back these long gone species and others is to preserve biodiversity and genetic diversity, undo harm that humans have caused in the past, restore diminished ecosystems and advance the science of preventing extinctions.

While de-extinction may seem only theoretical at this point, biologists are already knocking on its door. In 2003, Spanish researchers used frozen tissue from the last Pyrenean ibex, which had died three years earlier, to clone a new living twin (birthed by a goat). While the baby ibex died of respiratory failure within 10 minutes of its birth--a common problem in early cloning efforts--the de-extinction movement was officially born.

Revive & Restore expects to see much more progress in the coming decade given the recent focus on the topic by geneticists, conservation biologists and environmentalists. The group is working with researchers around the world to put together a list of "potentially revivable" species. Some of the criteria for whether a given species is a good candidate for revival include how desirable it would...

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