Rapid developments in genetic technologies including next-generation DNA sequencing and CRISPR, may make it possible for scientists to bring some extinct species back to life (de-extinction).
A meeting held at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle (UK) in June 2015 brought together twenty-two scientists and other interested parties to discuss the possibility that the extinct Great Auk could be brought back to life.
The Great Auk was a flightless pelagic bird that once ranged across the North Atlantic until its extinction in 1844. Despite efforts to protect this seabird, it was hunted to extinction by man for its feathers, meat, fat and oil. Many Great Auk specimens including skins, skeletons, eggs, preserved internal organs and ancient fossil remains are held in museums and it is these specimens that will provide the scientists with the preserved Great Auk DNA that they need to begin the process of de-extinction.
The Razorbill is the nearest living relative of the Great Auk. It looks very similar to the Great Auk, with the same feeding habits and trans-Atlantic range but it can fly and is a lot smaller. Tom Gilbert of the University of Copenhagen, has used DNA sequencing to generate preliminary data for both the Great Auk and Razorbill genomes. He confirmed that the genomes are genetically very close. This means genetic editing techniques could be used to genetically engineer the Razorbill genome to resemble that of the Great Auk. Using the Razorbill as a surrogate parent, any genome-edited Great Auk progeny would then go into a captive breeding program before Great Auks could be released back into the wild.
While it may be many, many years yet before we see a living Great Auk thriving in its former range, scientists acknowledge that in this age of next-generation DNA sequencing and the rapid advances in genomic technologies that are being made, it might one day be possible.
- Vickie Flint PhD
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