For the past few years science writer Britt Wray has been delving into the strange field of “de-extinction,” traveling the world to meet with scientists who are working to bring back species ranging from the aurochs to the thylacine to the woolly mammoth. One of the most promising efforts is Revive & Restore, which hopes to create a living passenger pigeon by the year 2022.
“That is what they have said as a target year where they can expect their gene editing experiments to produce the kind of birds that they would feel comfortable calling a de-extincted passenger pigeon,” Wray says in Episode 286 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Of course it’s hard to put a real finger on when these experiments will succeed, but that’s how long they think they need.”
There were once billions of passenger pigeons in North America, and a passing flock of them could darken the sky for hours. Now that seems like something out of Lord of the Rings, at least according to Ben Novak, lead scientist on the project.
“He was learning, at the age of 13—while being a huge fantasy fan, usually reading about mythical creatures—that this species was not mythical, but it had the same sort of effect for widening his imagination for what it would be like to live in a world with them,” Wray says.
And Novak isn’t the only fantasy fan with an interest in passenger pigeons. A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin is also involved with the project. “They need money in order to do this,” Wray says, “so they collected donations, and yes, George R. R. Martin’s name is there as one of the donors.”
But given that Westeros is home to several extinct species, including aurochs and direwolves, it’s maybe not surprising that an author like Martin would have a special interest in seeing extinct animals live again. “De-extinction is so fantastical in its ambition that it makes sense that it attracts minds like George R. R. Martin who have a really vibrant way of visualizing the world and the type of creatures that could inhabit it,” Wray says.
Listen to our complete interview with Britt Wray in Episode 286 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Britt Wray on Jurassic Park:
“Michael Crichton read this [paper], and was aware of this thinking that came from the group, and called George Poinar Jr. asking if they could discuss it, because he was working on a project that this experimental thinking could benefit, and George Poinar therefore became one of the foundational scientists to actually influence the science that went into Jurassic Park, because as you’ve probably already guessed from listening to that explanation I just gave, it sounds a lot like what Jurassic Park puts forward as a way that you could have actually created dinosaurs from petrified, encased mosquitoes that were prehistoric. … It’s been tried, but no one has ever recovered decipherable DNA sequences from old, old, old specimens of amber-encased DNA from those times, from millions and millions and millions of years ago.”
Britt Wray on climate change:
“The hypothesis here is that having many, many re-created woolly mammoths—or woolly mammoth/elephant hybrids—that could move north and run around in these areas where there is thawing permafrost, they could punch holes in the snow with their big mammoth feet, basically perforating this insulating blanket of snow and then allowing cold air from the atmosphere to come down, hit the topsoil of the permafrost, and promote some kind of refrigeration or cycling of frigid air. And then additionally perhaps they’d be able to knock over dark plants that absorb the sun’s heat, and fertilize the soil with their dung, giving rise to light, reflective grasses, eventually geo-engineering that area back into what it was like more similarly during the Pleistocene.”
Britt Wray on capitalism:
“One researcher who I met with a few times over the course of researching the book, Hendrik Poinar—the son of George Poinar Jr., the scientist who influenced Michael Crichton’s science for Jurassic Park—is a woolly mammoth genetics expert. He has sequenced its genetics, with his collaborators. And he was once taken out for a lunch by a rich businessperson—over a $7,000 bottle of wine—who offered to provide him a job if he would leave his academic post and join him on a mission to bring back the mammoth and open up some kind of theme park, so that people could pay to come and visit these marvelous, re-created beasts. He turned him down, and nothing went forward with the plan, but it demonstrates that some people already have their minds turning on ways to capitalize off of this kind of research.”
Britt Wray on DNA data storage:
“There have been many experiments to show that things such as movie clips or photographic stills or entire digital books can be converted and stored in a DNA molecule, and then sequenced back out from that molecular form back into binary, and it can be experienced again in a computer, and can be shown to work, to not have broken down or completely changed. Also, when you’re just storing it in a molecule you’re not putting it in a cell, so it’s not going to mutate and do all sorts of things, it can just sit there as an inert molecule, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for how we might store data in the future—particularly as we are generating so much more digital data all the time and we need places to put it, and it’s very energy-expensive to store it the way that we currently do.”