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Rethinking Extinction

Ryan Phelan, who pioneered direct-to-consumer genetic testing by founding DNA Direct in 2005, has taken on a new challenge — resurrecting extinct species via genetic technologies. As executive director of Revive and Restore, Phelan is leading an effort to "de-extinct" species, starting with the passenger pigeon.

The group's website says that rapid advances in genomic technology now make it "feasible to reconstitute the genomes of vanished species in living form, using genetic material from preserved specimens and archaeological artifacts."

This capability could change the meaning of extinction, the group says, noting that a species should not be considered completely extinct "until we know there is no way to discover or deduce its full genome."

In an interview posted at Edge.org, Phelan says the effort grew out of her work with George Church and the Personal Genome Project. "Right now, George's approach of basically editing the genome starts to make the concept of bringing something back really plausible," she says.

Using genome editing, researchers can compare the genome of the extinct species to its most closely related living species "and basically gene by gene match it, and edit it accordingly."

In the case of the passenger pigeon, researchers at Harvard are currently sequencing the genome of the band-tailed pigeon. "Then they will basically edit the band-tail genome until the band-tail walks, and talks, and flies like a passenger pigeon," Phelan says.

Of course there are myriad ethical questions surrounding this work. As a post in the Atlantic notes, reintroducing vanished species "could, theoretically, disrupt how the ecosystem functions today. With so many variables, it's difficult for scientists to anticipate all of the consequences."

Phelan acknowledges the complexities of the project, noting that one of its "fundamental questions" is whether extinction is "nature's way," and if it is, then "who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back?"

She argues, however, that most extinction "is 99.9 percent caused by man," and if that's the case, "do we have a little bit of responsibility to think about bringing it back now that we have science that can easily allow for it?"

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