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De-extinction Love Story

It began with a picture in a book and flourished with seeing a stuffed version of a passenger pigeon in a natural history museum, Ben Novak, then in his teens, was captivated by the extinct bird, writes Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times Magazine.

The last passenger pigeon died in 1914, though only forty-odd years earlier, the birds were one of the most abundant species in North America, Rich says. They are now one of the many species, alongside mammoths and great auks, that some are speculating could be brought back from extinction. And Novak is part of the team working to do just that.

A few years ago, Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, with inspiration from George Church and Edward O. Wilson, started what they dubbed Revive & Restore to examine the possibility of using genetic tools to bring extinct creatures back to the land of the living.

For the passenger pigeon, work is in its early stages, the Times says. The University of California, Santa Cruz's Beth Shapiro, who began to sequence the passenger pigeon in 2001, now is working on the genome of a relative, the band-tailed pigeon, which would act as a sort of guide for resurrecting the passenger pigeon. Likely using Church's MAGE approach, band-tailed pigeon DNA would be used to piece together the fragments of passenger pigeon DNA that then would be added to cultured band-tail pigeon germ cells before those cells, in turn, are introduced into band-tailed pigeon embryos. Those birds would look like band-tailed pigeons, but harbor passenger pigeon germ cells and could then be bred to produce passenger pigeons. Novak estimates that this process will take until 2020 or 2025.

Critics, especially conservation biologists, the Times notes, worry about the effects of de-extinction: what if the organism's habitat is gone or if it is a disease vector. Or such projects could take money away from conservation efforts while also rendering them unnecessary in people's minds, as the species could just be brought back.

Shapiro also notes that the organisms that come out of the de-extinction process might not even be like the original.

Still, it's a prospect that delights Novak.

"The passenger pigeon," Ed Green, a biomolecular engineer working in the UCSC paleogenomics lab, tells the Times' Rich, "makes Ben want to write poetry."