Ben Novak, the American scientist who has invested the past six years of his life on developing a process known as de-extinction, thinks so.
Look it up, and you’ll see that the passenger pigeon is nothing special. It’s like your average bird—except that this bird, pertaining to a species that went extinct in 1914, can come back from the dead. Or at least that’s what Ben Novak, the American scientist who has invested the past six years of his life on developing a process known as de-extinction, wants to believe, according to The Wall Street Journal. For reasons he can’t really explain, Novak became infatuated with the passenger pigeon at a young age. Now, he is working on a project that will hopefully enable him to bring the species back from extinction. And it looks like it just might work.
His hopes reside in a coop at a research facility in Melbourne, Australia. There, live 13 pigeons between the ages of two weeks and three months that are much like any other pigeons—aside for the fact that they are the first in history engineered to have reproductive systems that contain the Cas9 gene, a key component of the Crispr gene-editing tool. If everything goes according to plan, the squabs of these pigeons will have the Cas9 gene in every one of their cells. These cells would enable scientists to edit the birds’ DNA with that of the passenger pigeon, making them the first live animals ever edited to possess the traits of an extinct species.
This editing would be impossible without Crispr. With its ability to both add and delete genetic information, the tool functions as molecular scissors. But not only does it function; its severely effective—in the past decade, it has produced things from disease-resistant chickens to pig kidneys that scientists hope to test as transplants in humans. It has completely altered how we know and understand DNA. Though its been discussed as a de-extinction tool for years, Novak’s passenger pigeon experiment is the first to attempt to use the technology to that end.
The grim reality is that if Novak were to succeed in his endeavor, passenger pigeons would be at a high risk of re-extinction. After all, the habitat they thrived in—a North America dense with forests as opposed to cities, factories, and farms—disappeared only a few years after they did. That being said, while the project to bring back a species from the dead sounds like an exciting idea out of a science fiction novel, the planet is already full of existing species that are in danger of extinction. Our efforts should be aimed at preservation. De-extinction seems like a frivolous, albeit more exciting, feat in comparison.
But it isn’t necessarily. Beth Shapiro, the leader of Novak’s project, says that her own interest in the passenger pigeon was rooted in conservation. She hopes to use passenger pigeon genes related to immunity to strengthen the genetic material of currently endangered birds. But will she be able to do it? Only time, and an unborn flock of genetically engineered pigeons, can tell.