A new field of science dubbed “resurrection biology” has rapidly gained attention and ignited debate this year. Researchers around the world are exploring innovative techniques to revive long-extinct species and analyze ancient pathogens previously trapped in permafrost. Proponents argue this research could have conservation benefits and improve preparedness for future pandemics. However, critics warn meddling with the building blocks of life poses unpredictable risks.
Bringing Back the Dead
A leading project in this emergent discipline is the attempt to resurrect the dodo. Scientists extracted DNA from a well-preserved dodo specimen found in a museum collection and are using gene-editing tools to insert it into the eggs of its closest living relative, the nicobar pigeon. If successful, this would result in the first live dodo hatchling in over 300 years.
This de-extinction effort is being conducted by researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz and builds on prior work reviving the passenger pigeon. Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist leading the initiative, argues bringing back extinct species could restore ecological balance to endangered habitats. She also believes examining how synthetic dodos differ from historical specimens will offer insights into evolution.
However, some conservationists contend resources would be better spent preserving critically threatened species still alive today. They also highlight limitations around behavior and habitat viability for “de-extinct” organisms.
Ancient Viruses Awakening
In tandem with de-extinction experiments, scientists are also drilling into long-frozen Siberian permafrost to analyze dormant ancient viruses. Due to climate change, once permanently frozen regions are beginning to thaw. Researchers want to catalog pathogens reviving within to prepare for potential future outbreaks.
Ancient soil samples extracted from Siberian permafrost. Thawing once-frozen ground raises fears of reviving old viruses for which humans may have lost immunity. [Photograph: Anastasia Gubin/The Guardian]
Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at Aix-Marseille University conducting this analysis described the situation as “Pandora’s box,” alluding to the Greek tale of unleashing harms beyond control. His lab has already isolated 13 novel viruses from the melting permafrost, including one frozen over 30,000 years ago. So far none have proven pathogenic in humans or animals.
Virologists emphasize we likely only know about 1% of viruses in wildlife globally that could potentially spillover. Characterizing these unknown threats, while risky, allows time to develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines proactively if needed in the future. Still, some argue that resurrecting pathogens which have not circulated for millennia verges on irresponsible. Both the promise and perils of this research remain uncertain.
|Date Trapped in Permafrost
|>30,000 years ago
|>30,000 years ago
|>30,000 years ago
Brave New World or Path to Destruction?
Resurrection biology has drawn polarized reactions this year from both the public and scientific community. Supporters believe carefully regulated projects advancing knowledge of extinct species and germs could better arm humanity against climate change impacts. Detractors argue this domain probes dangerously into the unknown — we may not comprehend the hazards we unleash until it’s too late.
The ability to directly examine lost artifacts of natural history like the dodo inspires wonder for some researchers. To others, bringing vanished organisms back has an unsettling “Jurassic Park” quality that seems to disrupt the natural order. Analyzing long-dormant pathogens lets us investigate the evolutionary record but also risks exposing humanity to “zombie infections” we lack preparedness against should containment fail.
What Happens Next?
The resurrection biology movement seems poised to accelerate in 2024 as more labs dive into decoding permafrost samples and architecting prototype synthetic species. Several prominent conferences on the ethics of de-extinction and paleovirology are already slated for next year as well.
While this scientific domain holds both promise and peril, its rising prominence guarantees it will remain fiercely debated. Whether reshaping extinction and pathogenic threats ultimately proves boon or bane may depend on research proceeding cautiously and new governance emerging to match the velocity of technological innovation. For now, Pandora’s box has cracked open — scientists maintain optimism they can handle whatever spills out but success cannot be assured. 2023 marks when multiple genies escaped bottles thought permanently sealed but whether we come to regret unleashing them rests on decisions and events still to unfold over years ahead.
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