De-Extinction: Bringing Back the Dead

“I like how Plum has turned you into a Marsupial, Colleen,” a good friend, Todd Pound, said to me. Ten years ago I walked around with my chihuahua puppy nestling against my belly under my brown fake fur coat.  With a belt strapped around my coat to hold Plum in place, we could go anywhere as one.  Have I ever wanted a child of my own, not so much.  Would I like to birth another species? That’s a fertile concept for art and science to consider…

Let’s start with George Church.  Have you read Regenesis yet? I need to read it too. Colbert helps to introduce one of the masters of genomic sequencing and bio-engineering of our time.

Freaky creepy horror movies come to mind when I hear “Bringing Back the Dead,” but crusty zombies and animated bundled mummies aren’t the images that emerge when you listen to what’s motivating some of the latest investigations. It’s about reviving and restoring life that was wiped off our Earth, according to Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand, the founders of a new branch of the Long Now Foundation called revive and restore.

On March 15th, I attended TEDxDeExtinction in Washington DC to learn firsthand from the scientists the how, why, what of their work. I HAD to take part in this still-early conversation about the quest for genomic control and understanding. It’s like watching a toddler learn to crawl, only in this case, we have no idea what walking will actually look like since it is only an idea being spliced together with DNA fragments in surrogates.  The practice of De-Extinction has been evolving for some time, as we saw with the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996; cloning mammals is a big step on the ladder towards producing life which defies traditional mating behavior.

My first uninformed reaction to cloning: When has sex been a problem for animals?  Why are we doing this? (Since humans took over the planet, I guess.)  No matter where this synth-bio car is driving, it is on the road! I’ve been peripherally fascinated, at times disturbed, with it since 1996, at which point I made an artwork about the Flims mating with the Flams to see if their interspecies procreation would play out my imagined hypothesis to bring forth a healthy hybrid FlimFlam.*

When I watched Stewart Brand’s TED Talk this February about De-Extinction, I felt a strong positive wave, like a sigh of relief about the potential to repair the extinctions of recent years and the ones of current moments. The very human part of me that wants the movie to end well, for all to be happy, was triggered and boiled up into a simple, joyful altruistic – wow. I was not thinking about neanderthals and woolly mammoths, but the thousands of creatures disappearing NOW, daily.  Can humans reverse-engineer their conquering of lands and animals? Not easily, and not with any certainty of longterm consequences.  But maybe the 6th extinction can be time-capsuled in a freezer for generations to come if we are not able or willing to clean up and protect our world fast enough. I am grateful to Joel Sartore for creating his Photo Ark of endangered species; sometimes he is capturing the LAST ONE in existence.  The last one of a unique life form that you may likely have never seen, nor will see alive in the Anthropocene.

A Linne's two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus) at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.

Is De-Extinction sentimental?  For some.  Is it pure science? To others.  Does it cause extreme reactions? Absolutely!  In most. One argument in favor: It’s our duty – a form of human reparation owed to other species and the planetary balance.  An argument against: It will deter conservation and desperately needed clean up efforts; we will expand our hubris exponentially behind a novel, monstrous shield of self-destructive folly.  A point of agreement: If there are only 6 white rhinos left, do you really want Daddy Rhino sleeping with his daughter while Uncle Horn is doing his baby cousin? Not really, so by introducing frozen DNA of previous distant generations into the gene pool, we can enhance biodiversity and resilience of small, endangered populations to hopefully revive them. The potential for medical advances that will come from DNA research of extinct and living species seemed to resonate more soundly with some attendees and speakers than the passion for the resurgence of the passenger pigeon. For a detailed look at the complex event and speakers, Becky Chung reveals her take away and opens the door to millions of questions to ponder.

The idea of cultivating a species that flourished in another time, another land far far away, or maybe only yesterday, is right on par with exploration for living on Mars.  Both trajectories are evidence that humans want to know and grow, surmount and escape. Embroidered into that innate curiosity and striving is an uncertain amount of risk and renewal. David Ehrenfeld spoke articulately to the arrogance of humanity.  David Burney spoke to a beautiful reality of humans supporting wildlife through synergy and care in Hawaii; if you need a break from your industrial life, or want to immerse in fostering endangered species, you can go to Kauai’s Cave Reserve and reconnect to the Earth and its present day inhabitants tangibly, naturally.  His talk was an uplifting reminder during the day of spirited life and comforting nurturing. Not to say that stem cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) isn’t spirited. Michael Mace’s story of working at the San Diego Zoo to bring the California condor from 22 to 400 was definitely a warm merging of conservation, molecular biology, and ethics.

GMO experimentation and conversation are expanding their reach and ripples through the global citizenry.  The intentions of the scientists and presenters were like flickering facets and replicating fractals; I want to hear the dynamic accounts of their successes and failures. Some very good and some very bad things could happen, according to the psychic down the street, and I believe her.  There’s probably proof (attainable only via an extinct elder) that one of the speakers was a Bucardo in a past life, but the one-day conference did not open the stage for regressions.

Whenever this conversation gets entrenched during my daily De-Extinction dialogues, I ask, “Have you noticed that so much of the world is covered in concrete?  Somehow we adapted to it.  Shouldn’t we be having a conversation about relieving the Earth of some of the pavement? And for the record, I want to be a surrogate for numbats.”

Numbat at Perth Zoo, W. Australia. Photo by Martin Pot

*Imaginary results: Not all of the Flims could see, and the Flams only had some ability to smell. The Flim olfactory part did not necessarily transfer to the Flams.  The eye of the Flam was never a certainty for the Flims.  And the mutations were rampant. (Confused? It was like a child’s science fair project made with aluminum foil, cardboard, masking tape and paint with my left hand, mouth, and leg while my right hand was healing from surgery.) Questions surrounding genetic engineering had gripped me then.  Wish I could share, but I think the glossy 3″x5″ photos of the blobby purple, green and yellow FlimFlams are in a time-capsule box in an attic somewhere.  It’s just fun to say FlimFlam.





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