Jurassic Park has a lot to answer for. It made the idea seem so simple. Take the DNA from a microscopic drop of dinosaur blood, preserved for 65 million years in the gut of a mosquito trapped in fossilised amber. Carry out a bit of jiggery-pokery involving chaos theory and Jeff Goldblum. Insert the dino DNA into the yolk of a crocodile’s egg and leave to incubate. Soon you’ll have a thriving menagerie of once-extinct beasts roaming the jungles of someone’s private theme park. The 1993 Hollywood blockbuster and Michael Crichton novel of the same name may not have invented the idea of “de-extinction” but they certainly put it out there as a concept. And like all good works of science fiction, it showed what goes wrong when scientists get above themselves. A rampant T-rex is, after all, the ultimate invasive species.
De-extinction, or the idea of bringing extinct species back from the dead, has come a long way over the quarter century since Jurassic Park was first published. It has now matured into a quasi-serious science and has even been the subject of its own TEDx conference. Of course, no-one is talking about bringing back dinosaurs – their DNA is lost for good – but some scientists are proposing to resurrect a range of other, more-recently extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and the gastric-brooding frog, both lost within living memory.
There are quite a few animals that have become extinct relatively recently that are potential candidates for de-extinction. They include the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a large marsupial carnivore wiped out by sheep ranchers a century ago, the Pyrenean ibex which was hunted for sport until the last one fell dead in 2000, and the Steller’s sea cow, a gentle giant annihilated by hungry sailors in the 18th century.