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It's Called 'De-Extinction' — It's Like 'Jurassic Park,' Except It's Real

Fri, March 15, 2013 9:00am

Story by Claire O'Neill




Listen to this story on npr.org »

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Saber-toothed cats went extinct after the ice age; paleontologists are not sure what caused their extinction. This cat was brought to life by a puppeteer: It's a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Body puppet, George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

Sorry to disappoint, but science writer Carl Zimmer says we're not going to bring back dinosaurs. But, he says, "science has developed to the point where we can actually talk seriously about possibly bringing back more recently extinct species."

It's called "de-extinction" — and it's Zimmer's cover story for National Geographic's April issue.

In 2003, he tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, scientists took some DNA that had been rescued from the very last bucardo, a type of wild goat that had recently gone extinct. And, long story short, they used a surrogate egg and mother to bring a bucardo — or something close to it — back to life. It was born with birth defects, lived for 10 minutes, and then went extinct again. But scientists saw this as a major breakthrough.

How de-extinction works is complicated, and that's what the National Geographic article is for. The bigger, arguably more pressing, question is: Why develop de-extinction? And there's a discussion about that on National Geographic's website, as well.

Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is quoted in the magazine article as saying: "What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species."

Leave your comments here, or join the discussion there. You can also follow what the leading scientists think, as they gather Friday for a daylong TEDx event in Washington, D.C. Or learn more in this TED talk by Stewart Brand, who heads up the Revive and Restore project.

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