Resurrecting Extinct Species

Since the days of the famous movie, Jurassic Park, the idea of resurrecting extinct species to this planet has captivated society for years. The idea of bringing back dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and carrier pigeons, have created a unique challenge; can scientists reintroduce an extinct species and create a population capable of reproducing to produce progeny? With the recent discovery of the gene editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, geneticists now are able to perform site specific editing in the gene sequence. Could this be the silver bullet to potentially saving species that are perishing in the 6th mass extinction?

As discussed in last week’s post on CRISPR Technology, CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing mechanism found in bacteria to act as a self-defense mechanism to prevent bacteriophages from inserting viral DNA into the bacteria genome. This mechanism, while in development, has allowed geneticists to enhance our ability in editing genomes of lab animals. Soon, human trials will begin in China, as well as the United States, to test the capability of CRISPR-Cas9 in treating human disease.

CRISPR-Cas9
Figure 1. The CRISPR-Cas9 self-defense mechanism found in bacteria to protect against bacteriophages.

While this genetic mechanism can be used to treat disease in the future, perhaps it could be used to alter genomes of the past? In the movie, Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton describes the process of dinosaur cloning through the use of DNA, found in mosquitoes preserved in amber, with that of modern amphibians to account for the gaps in the gene sequence. While this theory has made for some excellent science fiction, paleontologists may have found another source of ancient DNA.

Jurassic Park
Figure 2. Scene from Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant, Dr. Sadler, and Dr. Hammond examine a baby Velociraptor. Source: http://earnthis.net/brian-terrills-100-film-favorites-29-jurassic-park/

Researchers have proposed that collagen of a 190 million year dinosaur could hold biomolecules that could contain ancient DNA. Coupled this with the recent discovery of a pregnant beloved dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, found potential DNA stored in the medullary bone of the mother T-Rex. This bone only found in pregnant dinosaurs, and those of pregnant crocodiles, could hold parts of the dinosaur genome.

However, we are still faced with a similar, dilemma, how do you account for the gaps in the genome of an extinct species? That’s where CRISPR-Cas9 comes into play. With the completed genome of modern species, who descended from these ancient species, could provide the template for which CRISPR-Cas9 could modify the genome. While this may seem overly simple, the process could be applicable to bring species who perished over the last 10,000 years. The woolly mammoth, an icon of the Ice Age perished thousands of years ago. Several years ago, an intact woolly mammoth was discovered in Siberia. With this baby woolly mammoth, the genome could be fully sequenced and analyzed. If successful, the genome could then be incorporated into modern-day elephant’s embryo to produce an offspring.

Mammoth-611035
Figure 3. The preserved adolescent woolly mammoth found in Siberia. Source: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/611035/Scientists-bring-woolly-mammoth-back-LIFE-discovery

Organizations have devoted manpower, and resources, to resurrecting species so as to repopulate environments devoid of these species. The Revive & Restore foundation mission is to collect, and preserve, genomes of species for conservation purposes. They are also experimenting with CRISPR-Cas9 to produce species with genetic resistance to certain disease. In addition, academic institutions, like the University of California Santa Barbara, have established guidelines on how to responsibly resurrect species to incorporate them back into nature. The power of genetic engineering is a growing field and new solutions are being developed to address the challenges we face in human health, the environment, and the planet as whole.

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