“Extinct animals don’t have rights” Hoskins, Jurassic World 2015 –
A statement so richly embedded in politics and science that I let out such a long sigh in the cinema.
I suppose it is good timing for this book to be released a couple of months before Jurassic World came out. As I have mentioned before in a previous blog post Resurrection! Bringing extinct species back from the dead, we are not going to be seeing dinosaurs being bought back. But since I wrote that blog post in 2014, there have been developments in the technology that could to some extent bring back extinct species.
One of those developments is the CRISPR-Cas9 method which I have written about in another blog post Humans Re-Designed, and which is going to dramatically change human therapeutics. It is with this technological feat in mind that Professor Beth Shapiro at the University of California, Santa Cruz who is also part of the Revive and Restore Project, writes this book How to clone a mammoth.
Shapiro takes us through a whirlwind adventure step by step that might lead to a cloned mammoth. While her book is written for the lay-person with little background in molecular biology, geneticists and those in the field of ancient DNA can still find some entertainment and humour in how she writes. She quite literally provides us with a story, narrating expeditions she has been on with appropriate cliff-hangers. So for instance, I skipped the few sections on DNA degradation (which admittedly I thought would have been more suitably provided in one place rather than in different sections and chapters), but I was left wondering at the end of chapter 4 just exactly who the men with guns were!
She also provides a theoretical thought experiment; that despite the challenges and numerous obstacles that we face in an attempt to clone a mammoth, with each step she always begins with the assumption that the previous has been successful. Her chapters are certainly presented in that way after a general introduction: Select a species, find a well-preserved specimen, create a clone, breed them back, reconstruct the genome, reconstruct part of the genome, now create a clone, make more of them, and set them free.
As easy as it may seem it is not! The truth is that there are so many obstacles and limitations that you actually start to wonder if it is at all possible to clone a mammoth. I found myself ironically laughing at yet another impossible task to overcome in chapter 8: Now create a clone. But as Shapiro writes, there are many teams around the world taking on one of these obstacles at a time and you do get to hear their stories as well, one of which includes coaxing wild Spanish ibex down from shelves (!)
My favourite chapter is the last: Should we? Perhaps more because as a scientist I find it incredibly funny and frustrating (in that order) at how science can be mis-interpreted and how the media can sensationalise. In reality, Shapiro does not present this science as the only solution to biodiversity/conservation issues. Even she worries that some might think this method is a quick-fix. She covers the contentious issues and ultimately presents de-extinction as a proposal that needs each obstacle examined in detail. She finishes off touching on policy issues that might affect such species.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in biodiversity and conservation matters. It crosses the divide between ancient DNA and ecology nicely. To answer the question: can mammoths be cloned? Shapiro answers: “No”. But there is a twist! And there is only one way to know what that twist is, and to do that you will need to read the book for yourselves.