Tuesday, March 19, 2013

De-Extinction: A New Hope for Wonder

It made me laugh, alright?

I recently had the opportunity to attend TEDxDeExtinction in DC, an event that brought together conservation biologists, synthetic biologists, and others to discuss reviving and restoring extinct species. Since the event, the response has been overwhelmingly negative, with most people focusing on the process of de-extinction:
1. Finding or generating the extinct organism's DNA
2. Creating an embryo
3. Finding a suitable surrogate
4. The surrogate gestating the embryo to birth
5. The organism surviving for longer than a few minutes after birth
6. Finding the proper habitat for that organism
7. Repeating the process for several organisms so they're able to reproduce
8. Observing and measuring the effect of their reintroduction on the ecosystem, etc.

Clearly, that's a lot of steps, and clearly, there are many possible points of failure, so picking this process apart is like shooting fish in a barrel, which is what everyone is doing now. But why? I think we must be discussing all of this because it's all we CAN do, because right now? We're pre-step 1.

I posted a while back lamenting the loss of wonder in our society. With the moon landing many many years behind us and all other discoveries and advancements seeming far less glorious in comparison (can we get a little excitement over the Higgs Boson, people being cured of AIDS, and the samples being collected by Curiosity, please?), it's been seeming like we as a society just can't get excited over science anymore. That is, until you walk up to someone and tell them that the work being done by synthetic biologists today might be able to (eventually) bring back the woolly mammoth. Or the dodo. Or the tasmanian tiger. Or the passenger pigeon. I'd be willing to bet that, after they get the requisite Jurassic Park references out of their system, they'd be kind of excited. Maybe even really excited. And the person I was imagining in that scenario is an adult. Try telling that to a kid.

I'm pretty sure that, after you rehinge all your limbs and regain your hearing, you'll find that kid researching their favorite extinct animal, trying to learn as they can process about synthetic biology, and putting together science fair projects about what they've found. They might go and ask their parents for woolly mammoth pajamas, bedsheets, and posters, just like kids in the '60s asked for rockets, astronauts, and robots. And this kid might eventually go to school to become a synthetic biologist.

With all of our talk of the leaky STEM pipeline, I really wonder what there is to gain by squelching the underlying hope of de-extinction. Are we somehow worried that these synthetic biologists FORGOT how to do real science? Y'know, with experimental replication and peer review? Are we worried that this will take funds away from those of us doing "approved" science? Because I gotta tell you, the pot of funding for ALL science is shrinking. Fast. So clearly, efforts to just keep up the status quo and go for applied research the way we have been isn't helping to punt more grants our way.

All I'm asking is for some understanding of how powerful hope and wonder can be in propelling people to do things. Initial skepticism in the absence of data should not be a deterrent; I'm sure there were many people fearing a trip to the moon would yield space invaders or something, and were making arguments like the ones in this article from 1963. But we did it anyways, and look what came of it: technological innovations, increased knowledge, and kids diving headlong into STEM. We need another moon landing, and de-extinction could be it.

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