Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Second Time Around

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Extinction is such an ugly word, the elimination of an insect, or an animal, or a race of people. Once they are gone, they are gone forever - or are they?

I am not a fan of the writing of the late Michael Crichton. He used stilted language and pedestrian phrasing to tell his stories, but his books sold in the bazillions. The reason for his huge success was not his writing ability, which was limited, but rather is was due to his amazing ideas. Crichton was so original in his thinking that most of his books have already found their way into film - where skilled screenwriters kicked the insipidness out of his words.

My favorite Crichton novel was Jurassic Park, the story of a obsessed scientist on a remote island who used DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber to re-engineer the beasts from which the mosquitoes had been supping - various types of dinosaurs. I read the book, saw the movie, and, a few years later as I was travelling through Russia, had the opportunity to view quite a bit of amber jewelry - much of which contained insects that had become stuck in the tree sap millions of years ago - even mosquitoes!

And so, I wondered, could Crichton's fantastical thesis - that dinosaurs could be brought back through science - be realized. Not one to doubt the inventiveness and persistence of man, I believe that some young scientists are busy today working on that very project.

There are two actual efforts to bring back an extinct species that have been in the news lately. Japanese researchers have been scaling glaciers in Siberia looking for the frozen remains of wooly mammoths, a species of huge elephant-like creatures that roamed the earth for millions of years, but receded into extinction during the last ice age, 11,000 years ago. These scientists are hoping to find some viable wooly mammoth sperm, and if they are successful in that quest, they will use the sperm to impregnate some unsuspecting female Asian elephants. They have developed a genetic plan that they believe could result in the birth of genuine wooly mammoths in just a few generations of selective breeding.

The other attempt to reverse extinction is occurring through the efforts of a Dutch group who are endeavoring to return Europe to a more natural state. One of the group's projects is to repopulate the European countryside with the massive cattle that used to roam across Europe in large herds. These cattle were called aurochs, and they date from prehistoric times. In fact, some of the earliest recorded history, cave paintings, feature aurochs. These huge cows were domesticated about 8,000 years ago, but were eventually killed and eaten into extinction, a process that was probably accelerated by changing land use patterns and the destruction of auroch habitats in Europe. The last known auroch died in a Polish nature preserve in 1627.

Scientists plan to collect auroch DNA from skeletal specimens currently housed in museums. They will study that DNA and compare it to the DNA of modern breeds to determine which ones are descended from the original auroch stock. Once that is determined, they plan to create a "genetic mosaic" plan to selectively breed the modern descendants back to the original stock. Sounds complicated, but we will know in a few generations (of the cattle) if they are heading in the right direction or not.

So where will all of this science lead us? Will we see the day when McDonald's offers up a genuine brontosaurus burger - with or without fries? Will we see cowboys at rodeos being bucked from angry aurochs? Will ivory poachers one day fix their evil sights on wooly mammoths?

It's impossible to tell what the world will be like in the next year, let alone the next century, but I think that it's fair to assume that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will see and experience things that would surprise even Michael Crichton - that is, unless science itself becomes extinct and mankind drifts back into an age of darkness. If that happens, humanity itself could be the next victim.

No comments: