Sunday, March 17, 2013

Will you visit the REAL Jurassic Park?

Did you know that DNA resurrections of extinct animals are already underway? In 2011, a team of scientists in Japan announced that they expect to be able to clone a woolly mammoth within the next 5 years. This may sound as far-fetched as the original premise for Stephen Spielberg's Jurassic Park movies, but it's not as crazy as you might think.

One of the reasons that the woolly mammoths are an attractive target for cloning--besides being huge and just otherworldly enough to generate gazillions of dollars in video, news and zoo viewing sales--is that many complete corpses of this species have been found in the frozen tundra in various countries. On several occasions, the woolly mammoth flesh was so well-preserved that the discoverers reported a musky animal smell and that the flesh was fresh enough it could have been thawed and cut into steaks.
Zachary Pill, The Dragon at Station End, Trilogy (The Zachary Pill series - books 1, 2 & 3)

So what is involved with cloning an extinct species and why hasn't it been done yet? In short, DNA is a very complicated set of blueprints from which any organic body is built. As more and more time passes, those DNA blueprints break down and are no longer readable or usable at our current level of science. Hence, the reason most scientists doubt that dinosaurs will ever be resurrected. However, woolly mammoths are another thing entirely. We are talking about relatively young DNA, say between 6,000 and 30,000 years old. Add the permafrost preservations, and it's almost as though these massive and amazing creatures passed away in our backyard last night.

So how will this work? First of all, working with the woolly mammoths is not exactly an easy challenge. Even their relatively fresh DNA blueprints are blurry and incomplete. Scientists are attempting to overcome that by piecing together DNA from dozens of specimens around the world, with the hope that together they will form a mostly complete puzzle. Then, like in the Jurassic Park movies, they intend to use DNA from the closest living species to complete the blueprint. In the case of the woolly mammoths, Asian elephants will likely provide both the missing DNA links and the wombs to be impregnated with clone embryos.

So, really, what are the chances? No one can truly answer that, but most scientists agree that it's not just possible but very likely that many lost species will find their way back to life. The Japanese science team may not hit their 5-year goal, and it may actually be another scientist or group of scientists that achieves their desired feat, but it seems almost certain that at some point in the not too distant future woolly mammoths will roam the earth once again.

What other animals might we see rise from the dead? We've already discussed that the truly ancient species like dinosaurs, giant insects and other massive creatures from millions of years back (when higher oxygen levels in the atmosphere supported colossal bodies) will be unable to return, but there are tens of thousands of other creatures that may have a chance. And many of them have DNA preserved in laboratory freezers around the world. We could definitely see the dodo bird again, and the woolly rhinoceros. We might also find what were once the world's largest birds, the moas, racing across our soils. Though these massive wingless birds went extinct over 600 years ago, they are just odd enough to have audience value. Cloning efforts on recovered eggshells are already underway.

The big question is what do we do with these lost brethren if and when they come back? Though some creatures were hunted to nonexistence, often by humans, most species are gone because our world changed so much that they could no longer survive. And let's remember that many extinct species have gone the way of the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, all of which were not only unable to thrive in the wild any longer, they were also unable to survive in captivity. The last of each of those species actually died in zoos.

In short, the most likely extinct creatures to return to life are the ones with the highest audience appeal, the ones people are most likely to pay large sums to see living and breathing again. Is it any wonder that the woolly mammoth is first and foremost among those extinct prizes?


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