Efforts to bring the extinct passenger pigeon back from the dead are heating up, Wired's Kelly Servick says today in a story following Ben Novak, a 26-year-old genetics student who she writes has "put his graduate studies on hold to pursue a goal he'd once described in a junior high school fair presentation: de-extinction."
According to Servick, Novak's pigeon-philia has been recognized with an appointment as coordinator for this first subject case in a larger project to raise the dead of many extinct species from Revive and Restore, led by Ryan Phelan, who founded the DTC genetic company DNA Direct in 2005.
The company has convened a team of scientists to work through the challenge of rebuilding a passenger pigeon from the slime left in museum specimens and the architecture of close pigeon relatives, and is hosting a TEDx talk today to discuss the project, featuring field heavyweight George Church among many others.
According to Wired, Novak's plan hinges on sequencing available fragments of the genome of the passenger pigeon and comparing them to the genome of its cousin, the band-tailed pigeon.
"The short, mangled DNA fragments from the museums' passenger pigeons don't overlap enough for a computer to reassemble them, but the modern band-tailed pigeon genome could serve as a scaffold. Mapping passenger pigeon fragments onto the band-tailed sequence would suggest their original order," Servick writes.
Novak sent requests to 30 museums before receiving a passenger pigeon tissue sample from Chicago's Field Museum in 2011 and used a borrowed $2,500 to pay for it to be sequenced, according to Servick. Now working with evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Novak hopes to complete full sequences of the passenger and band-tailed pigeon genomes within a year.
But the project could really get dicey, Servick says. According to Shapiro, "because the last common ancestor of the two species flew about 30 million years ago, their genomes will likely differ at millions of locations." Fitting the pieces together will be grueling, if not impossible
Then Novak will have to break the even more stalwart barrier of actually modifying the genome of the band-tailed pigeon to match that of the carrier pigeon and bringing it to life implanted in another bird's egg.
Assuming all this actually works out, Servick says Novak eventually hopes to set up a "sanctuary of lab-generated pigeon chicks in the bird's original breeding territory."