March 25, 2019

Bring the Woolly Mammoth Back to Life

“Around ten years ago, Stewart Brand, the founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” and George Church, a Harvard geneticist, met in Boston. Brand had an interest in using genetic technology for conservation, and when Church said that he read and wrote DNA, Brand told me, “that got my attention.” Reading DNA had been done before, but writing DNA was something new. The two hit it off and have been collaborating on a project to resurrect the woolly mammoth, the giant Arctic elephant that went extinct ten thousand years ago. Church is a pioneer in genetic technology—he helped develop the crispr-Cas9 technology that a researcher in China recently used on the world’s first genetically edited newborns—and, in his lab, scientists are working on bringing the prehistoric pachyderm back from extinction. The process would involve adding certain mammoth genetic adaptations, like a long, dense pelt and layers of insulating fat, to the DNA of Asian elephants, which share more than ninety-nine per cent of their DNA with their extinct cousins. Church and Brand have a vision of herds of future mammoths grazing the steppes of the far north.

Church’s woolly mammoth research is just one of several de-extinction projects—there are about ten underway now—that aim to use genetics to restore lost species. In her book “The Re-Origin of Species,” the Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt travels the world meeting the scientists and conservationists involved in this movement. In California, she talks with Ben Novak, a scientist obsessed with bringing back the passenger pigeon—a bird that once travelled in flocks that were so giant and dense, Novak tells her, that they “swept through the landscape, with the same effect as forest fires.” In upstate New York, a researcher is working toward restoring the American chestnut, which was decimated by blight in the late eighteen-hundreds. Until then, chestnuts were so prevalent in the eastern half of the United States that, when their white blossoms fell in the spring, the hillsides looked like they were covered in snow; in the fall, their sweet, starchy nuts served as a free, abundant harvest. At Australia’s Sea Simulator aquarium, resurrection scientists are working on coral, which faces an existential threat from the rapid warming and acidifying of ocean waters. These researchers want to help coral avoid extinction by “trying to nudge evolution,” imbuing them with traits that will allow them to survive the hotter oceans of the future.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"China’s Hydrogen economy Is coming: The world’s electric-vehicle king is seeking leadership in fuel cells, too. Investors are probably right to be excited."

"It would be the height of naivete to believe the book is closed. Democrats on Capitol Hill are not just going to take the attorney general's conclusions and move on to new things."

"Netanyahu has brazenly allied himself with Trump’s Administration and his family (including the cryptic peace negotiator, Jared Kushner, whose family he has known for years), as well as with the Republican Party and Republican funders..."

"Us is stranger than Get Out, with deeper philosophical undercurrents flowing through it. The rabbit that greets you at the movie’s start is an invitation. Will you follow, like Alice in her Wonderland?"

"Democrats and Republicans seem to have irreconcilable views on economics, but on one point they agree: Small business is better than big."

"Sanctuary, a digital astrology start-up backed by $1.5 million in venture capital, made the considered decision to launch its service on Wednesday — the dawn of the new astrological year, when Pisces gives way to Aries in the astral cycle."

"It is a Vessel for the depths of architectural cynicism, of form without ideology and without substance: an architectural practice that puts the commodifiable image above all else, including the social good..."

"Apartment Therapy posted a photo to Instagram of a bookshelf with the spines facing inward, and the dramatic response — dozens of users denouncing the trend as anti-intellectual, even comparing it to book-burning ..."

"Perhaps it is time to add parenting to the growing list of “replacement religions” competing for our attention and currency these days, a list that already includes workism and politics."

"Only a fraction of the world’s yeast species have been discovered. The ones still out there could revolutionize health care, green energy, and beer."

"We’ve recently fixated on expunging “fake news” but the medical world also has its charlatans. The snake-oil salespeople, masquerading as health professionals, are naturopaths."

"...should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?"