Solve Extinction

Extinction isn’t what it once was.

Countless species have become extinct over the eons – from Dinosaurs to Woolly Mammoths to the adorable Dodo Birds. When a species is gone, it is gone forever – or that is what the world believes.

Advances in genetics, cloning and synthetic biology have made the impossible possible. Soon science will be able to resurrect species long since gone. Thinking Exponentially, its geometrical advances in reading and writing DNA that have made all the difference.

There are three basic ways to revive an extinct species. First is to try to outright clone it. Second is to print its DNA and clone that. Third is a hybrid approach using printed DNA, gene replacement and cloning.

Digital illustration of  DNA in abstract backgroundWhen any living creature dies, its body no longer functions as a unit. However its DNA can remain intact for up to 100,000’s of  years. Recently a relative of a horse that died 700,000 years ago had its DNA sequenced. Setting a new record the oldest DNA read. The software of life remains long after the creature is gone.

Almost every cell has a full copy of DNA –  meaning that there are billions of copies DNA to use for cloning. Thats why the Frozen Zoo is banking DNA from over 1000 species.

artificial inseminationCloning is the process by which DNA is first extracted from an animal. It is then inserted into an egg cell that had its original DNA removed. The egg is implanted into a prospective compatible mother.  With a bit of luck and a spark, a copy of the first animal is born.

What has this to do with resurrecting an extinct species? The answer is everything.

The first successfully clone was Dolly the Sheep in 1996. There where hundreds of failed attempts before Dolly was born.  Almost 20 years later entire generations have been cloned. Recently a team from Japan cloned hundreds of mice from white blood cells.

Option 1: The first approach is to find an intact set of DNA from an extinct species. By inserting the DNA into an egg and impregnating a similar animal, the hope is to revive an extinct species. Many copies of the DNA are created to maximize success, in theory this should work.

The key with this approach is finding a pristine copy of DNA. As DNA ages, it tends to degrade. The newer the DNA, the higher chance of success. After a million years, any single copy of DNA is so poorly degenerated it cannot be used in straight cloning.

Today Science is trying to bring back a Woolly Mammoth – in 6 years. The challenge is finding a single copy of DNA that is intact enough to function for the clone DNA. It will be a remarkable achievement for the human race. Mammoth’s recently died out in the last ice age, their DNA should be well preserved in the ice and cold.

Option 2: The second approach is to sequence the DNA from an extinct species by sequencing many samples. Any single sample too damaged to clone directly. However many samples would provide extensive overlap. Today we can inexpensively read many samples of DNA, combine and compare them, and converge on a version.

Imagine you want to read an ancient book. A few pages are found in a basement in London, a few more in an attic in Paris and the cover in Rome. By scanning and combining all three, it would be possible to recreate the original text. The same applies for extinct animal DNA.

Once a complete set of DNA is organized on a computer, the next step is to print the entire DNA sequence from scratch. Thanks to Exponentially dropping costs in printing DNA, its not too far off to see a time where an entire mammalian DNA sequence can be printed – including chromosomes. The newly printed DNA then follows the path of the first option, inserting it into an egg to be planted in a compatible mother.

Woolly MammothOption 3: The third approach is a combination of the two previous options and gene recombination. It is expensive to print an entire genome, but it would be possible to print the parts we need and modify the DNA of a related cousin.

For example, we could sequence the woolly mammoth and an elephant. By finding the differences and using precision gene replacement, we could change the necessary elephant DNA and proceed with cloning. A similar approach was theorized in the movie Jurassic Park.

Another hybrid variation is to assemble the fragments of DNA from many sample. Use gene recombination techniques try to build a complete genome for cloning. Between a single sample, multiple samples, and DNA printing there are numerous ways to assemble a completed genome for cloning.

In my humble opinion, option 2 is preferred – a synthetic engineered approach is a better way to go. The primary benefit is there is less luck required. Rather than hoping that a working copy of DNA was recovered from an extinct species, or hacking a living genome, it is better to control the process by synthetically printing the DNA needed.

Already archives of almost extinct animal’s DNA is being saved for future cloning projects. To learn more about the impact of cloning, there is an excellent book – Frankenstein’s Cat. I also highly recommend Regenesis, a book about synthetic life one of the most influential geneticists alive – George Church.

Caveat: DNA printing may be the most precise method but it is still quite expensive. Realistically speaking, it will not be ready until 2017 for projects of this scale.

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Categories: Solve, Synthetic Biology, Video

Author:Geoffrey Shmigelsky

Technology Entrepreneur, Angel Investor


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