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Filmed on Tuesday May 21, 02013

Stewart Brand

Reviving Extinct Species

Stewart Brand is cofounder of Global Business Network and The Long Now Foundation. His books are: Whole Earth Discipline; The Clock of the Long Now; How Buildings Learn; The Media Lab; Two Cybernetic Frontiers; Whole Earth Catalog.

Death is still forever, but extinction may not be---at least for creatures that humans drove extinct in the last 10,000 years. Woolly mammoths might once again nurture their young in northern snows. Passenger pigeon flocks could return to America’s eastern forest. The great auk may resume fishing the coasts of the northern Atlantic.

New genomic technology can reassemble the genomes of extinct species whose DNA is still recoverable from museum specimens and some fossils (no dinosaurs), and then, it is hoped, the genes unique to the extinct animal can be brought back to life in the framework of the genome of the closest living relative of the extinct species. For woolly mammoths, it’s the Asian elephant; for passenger pigeons, the band-tailed pigeon; for great auks, the razorbill. Other plausible candidates are the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, Eskimo curlew, thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), dodo, Xerces blue butterfly, saber-toothed cat, Steller’s sea cow, cave bear, giant ground sloth, etc.

The Long Now Foundation has taken “de-extinction” on as a project called “Revive & Restore,” led by Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand. They organized a series of conferences of the relevant molecular biologists and conservation biologists culminating in TEDxDeExtinction, held at National Geographic in March. They hired a young scientist, Ben Novak, to work full time on reviving the passenger pigeon. He is now at UC Santa Cruz working in the lab of ancient-DNA expert Beth Shapiro.

This talk summarizes the progress of current de-extinction projects (Europe’s aurochs, Spain’s bucardo, Australia’s gastric brooding frog, America’s passenger pigeon) and some “ancient ecosystem revival” projects---Pleistocene Park in Siberia, the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, and Makauwahi Cave in Kaua’i. De-extinction has been described as a “game changer” for conservation. How might that play out for the best, and how might it go astray?

In an era of “anthropocene ecology,” is it now possible to repair some of the deepest damage we have caused in the past?

De-extinction begins

The new tools of synthetic biology, I began, are about to liberate conservation in a spectacular way. It is becoming possible to bring some extinct species back to life.

A project within Long Now called “Revive & Restore” is pushing to make de-extinction a reality, starting with the fabled passenger pigeon and moving on to the woolly mammoth. The project’s director, Ryan Phelan, organized a series of three conferences bringing together molecular biologists and conservation biologists to see if “resurrection biology” is becoming a field and how it might proceed responsibly. (The most viewable of the conferences was “TEDxDeExtinction” in Washington DC this March.)

At those conferences we heard about cloning efforts that are already partially successful. Alberto Fernández Arias in Spain temporarily brought back an extinct ibex called the bucardo. Michael Archer, from Australia, reported reviving an early stage embryo of the extinct gastric brooding frog. Using traditional back-breeding, Henri Kerkdijk-Otten, is rebuilding the European aurochs (extinct in 1627) from a variety its descendent modern cattle. William Powell is showing how the nearly extinct beloved American chestnut tree is being brought back by a combination of back-breeding and sophisticated genetic engineering.

Robert Lanza (Advanced Cell Technology), Oliver Ryder (The Frozen Zoo), and Michael McGrew (Roslin Institute) showed miracles that can now be accomplished with advanced cloning and induced pluripotent stem cells. Beth Shapiro (UC Santa Cruz) and Hendrik Poinar (McMaster University) explained how complete genomes are being read from the “ancient DNA” of fossils and museum specimens. George Church (Harvard) spelled out his allele replacement technique that will allow editing the genes from an extinct species into the genome of its closest living relative---from the passenger pigeon into the band-tailed pigeon, for example---thereby bringing back to life the extinct animal.

Ben Novak is working full-time for Revive & Restore on the passenger pigeon and is now in the thick of sequencing work and comparative genomics in Beth Shapiro’s ancient-DNA lab at UC Santa Cruz.

Conservation biologists like Stanley Temple, Kent Redford, and Frans Vera regard de-extinction as “a game-changer for conservation.” On the one hand, it dilutes the stark message “Extinction is forever!” while on the other hand it offers a message of hope that conservation can build on.

I concluded, “The fact is, humans have made a huge hole in nature over the last 10,000 years. But now we have the ability to repair some of the damage. We’ll do most of the repair by expanding and protecting wild areas and by expanding and protecting the populations of endangered species.

“Some species that we killed off totally, we might consider bringing back to a world that misses them.”

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SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

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We would also like to recognize George Cowan (1920 - 2012) for being the first to sponsor this series.