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Can This Young Scientist Bring Back T-Rex?

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A wall of Dire Wolf skulls at the Page Museum in Los Angeles. Long extinct, scientists believe they can now bring animals like this back from the dead.

CREDIT: Cody Bond

Ever since he was a kid, Ben Novak has been in love with the Passenger Pigeon—obsessed, he’d say—even though he’d never seen one.

The last known member of the species, a female affectionately known as “Martha,” died in 1914. It took only a couple of decades of over hunting to wipe out a population that once numbered in the billions. But Novak is confident that he can bring them back, and he is not alone.

National Geographic reports:

"The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" on the world."

At 26, Novak is the youngest among a team of scientists working on Revive and Restore, a project of the Long Now Foundation. The Passenger Pigeon is the first species in the project’s roster of de-extinction candidates.

“I believe [de-extinction] is not just possible,” Novak told Campus Progress, “But we have a high probability of success.”

But Novak says there are limitations. Genetic engineering of this sort doesn’t start from scratch – at the very least it requires a viable DNA sample and somewhere to put it. This narrows the field to recently extinct animals with a close living relative. In other words, mammoths are in, dinosaurs are out.

Novak put it like this: “There’s no egg to put that baby in.”

A good serving of ethical and environmental issues arise with this kind of science. Heaviest among them is the concern that research into de-extinction will detract from conservation efforts for endangered species, but Novak said this isn’t the case. 

“No one wants to bring back a mammoth at the expense of elephant conservation,” he said, adding that the sheer cost of species revival makes conservation a priority. At the same time, “there’s never too few to save a species.”

The project’s goal is to eventually re-wild animals like the Passenger Pigeon and encourage biodiversity on a shrinking planet. “The health of the world is crucial to our own health,” Novak said.

He dismisses accusations of playing God: “This is about being conscious, not superior.”

Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.

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