A project to bring back America’s most iconic extinct species
The first project to revive an extinct animal using its museum-specimen DNA starts here. Once it succeeds, the techniques will be applicable to hundreds of other extinct species.
The passenger pigeon was selected for its iconic status and its relative practicality. Its DNA has already been sequenced. Some of its fans among scientists have the technical capability to begin the miracle of resurrection.
The work will proceed by stages over the coming months.
Ben Novak is a passenger pigeon expert now working full time on the project, supported by Revive & Restore. He has joined the lab of Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist at UC Santa Cruz, to refine the sequencing of passenger pigeon DNA and compare it with the DNA of the extinct bird’s closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.
The genomes of the two birds will be compared in close detail, to determine which differences are most crucial. Then the data and analysis goes to George Church’s lab at Harvard’s Wyss Institute to begin the process of converting the viable band-tailed DNA into viable passenger pigeon DNA. Later stages in the project, involving techniques being developed at Roslin Institute in Scotland, will generate live passenger pigeons from the DNA, and the birds will proceed to captive breeding and eventual return to the wild.
De-extinction projects around the world
Revive & Restore is working with de-extinction scientists worldwide to build a roster of potentially revivable species. From the perspectives of conservation biology and molecular biology, criteria are emerging for determining which ones are most practical and desirable to attempt to bring back.
A number of species revival projects are currently underway, including work to bring back the European aurochs, Pyrenean ibex, American chestnut, Tasmanian tiger, California condor, and woolly mammoth.
Along with Revive & Restore’s own project to bring back the passenger pigeon, we will help draw attention to other such de-extinction efforts. Also noteworthy are related programs to restore vanished ecosystems such as Pleistocene Park in Siberia, the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, and Makauwahi Cave in Hawaii.
The first de-extinction project with direct involvement by Revive & Restore is the passenger pigeon, which was hunted from a population of billions in the 19th century to zero in 1914. There are some 1,500 preserved specimens with extractable DNA.
In February 2012 Revive & Restore organized a meeting at Harvard titled “Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon.” It included bird experts such as Noel Snyder, Scott Edwards, David Blockstien, and Joel Greenberg, along with biotech experts George Church and Beth Shapiro.
When word of that meeting got around, we were contacted by Ben Novak, a young expert in ancient DNA obsessed with reviving the passenger pigeon. He was hired by Revive & Restore to work full time on the passenger pigeon project, starting with sequencing its nearest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.
Ben Novak did grad work on ancient DNA at McMaster University in Ontario, learned biotech skills at George Church’s lab in Boston, and will be working on passenger pigeon DNA and de-extinction in Beth Shapiro’s group at the University of California, Santa Cruz.