Does De-extinction Bring us Closer to a Real Jurassic World? Beth Shapiro Sounds Off

How to Clone a Mammoth, by Beth ShapiroAs we all await the release of Jurassic World this week, (catch the trailer here), the owner of Russia’s vast nature reserve, Pleistocene Park, is awaiting the arrival of an actual woolly mammoth. Pleistocene Park is a major initiative in northern Siberia that includes an attempt to restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the late Pleistocene period. The park has been in existence since the 1970s, but given the progress scientists have made this year in sequencing the mammoth genome, one can’t help but wonder if a real life Jurassic World in Siberia is now close at hand. Alex Hannaford reports for The Telegraph, and the takeaway is we shouldn’t get too excited about going on a T-Rex safari anytime soon:

For the last 20 years at least, most scientists have poured scorn on the idea that dinosaurs could be cloned using the method popularised in the first Jurassic Park film — extracting DNA from an insect entombed in resin. A few years ago scientists studying fossils in New Zealand revealed that the bonds that form the backbone of DNA would be entirely degraded — useless — after 6.8 million years. And seeing as dinosaurs last roamed the Earth 65 million years ago, that ruled out any realistic chance of sequencing their genome.

But the wooly mammoth died out far more recently, which makes it quite another story, according to Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth. She talks to The Telegraph about the more plausible uses of de-extinction technology:

De-extinction, this process of swapping out genomes in existing animals for traits that their ancestors had, but which they could benefit from today, could have other uses, Shapiro says. “Let’s say all of the natural habitat for elephants disappeared. If we could swap those cold-surviving genes [of the mammoth] into elephants, so that we could stick elephants into wild places in Europe or Siberia where elephants used to live, we could use this technology — not to bring mammoths back but to save elephants.”

Shapiro tusk photo

Regardless, de-extinction remains highly controversial, and Shapiro has become a go-to expert on the matter. Carl Zimmer writes in Wall Street Journal, “For anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the technical issues involved in de-extinction, How to Clone a Mammoth should satisfy your curiosity.” During Shapiro’s European tour, she was interviewed about her book for BBC World Service, The Forum and the interview is now available online. Beth was also interviewed for BBC Radio Wales Science Café, as part of a program featuring scientists speaking at Hay Festival. Voice of America aired their interview with Beth recently as well, as did CBC Radio’s national science program Quirks & Quarks.

Shapiro and Kendall

Beth Shapiro and The Forum’s presenter, Bridget Kendall

If you’re looking for eerie similarities between life and art in this case, rest assured they do exist. According to Shapiro, as in real life, “Jurassic Park scientists were only able to recover parts of the dinosaur genome—in the case of the movie, from the mosquito blood that was preserved in amber.” Prospect Magazine’s website has just run an abridged extract from How to Clone a Mammoth where Shapiro elaborates on the real (and not so real) science of Jurassic World. You can also check out the series of original videos by Shapiro on the real life science of de-extinction here.