Back to the future: Should science try to revive extinct species?

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Species extinction has been a constant for as long as life has been around. Throughout Earth's tumultuous history, the curtain has come down on creatures ranging from microbial size to 90-foot dinosaurs without so much as a "thanks for the memories."

Humans have been among the luckiest in the elude-extinction sweepstakes. Unlike our deceased cousins, the Cro Magnons and Neanderthals, we've had the talent to ascend to the next stage in evolution by adapting to a changing environment with efficiency.

That intelligence is now being put to use by scientists who are trying to figure out how to reverse extinction one subspecies at a time. A recent New York Times report said that attempts to bring back the extinct Pyrenean ibex (a large goatlike animal) and the Southern gastric brooding frog by using cloning techniques have not been successful. But even the failures have been scientifically tantalizing.

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, told the Times, "Maybe we can no longer delay death, but we can reverse it." Well, not quite yet.

Whenever talk of reviving an extinct creature arises, people think of the movie "Jurassic Park" and the folly of scientists playing God. But for as much as some would like to clone tyrannosaurus rex, there appears to be no dinosaur DNA. That has not stopped scientists from taking an interest in other possibilities, though.

Theoretically, DNA from a frozen woolly mammoth could be injected into the egg of a modern elephant and thereby produce a long-gone animal, but, first, certain questions should be asked. Is it ethical to bring back a creature that's been extinct for tens of thousands of years? How would an animal fare in a world full of viruses for which it has no immunity?

The science sounds like sci-fi, but the questions about whether to move forward -- and why -- are real and deserve an answer.

We live in an interesting time. For better or worse, we could soon be sharing it with more interesting creatures.



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