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The last one died 99 years ago in the Cincinnati Zoo. But its DNA survives.
Brand would use recent advances in genetic editing to identify and extract the genetic material that distinguishes a passenger pigeon from its nearest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. Brand’s group would insert the unique passenger pigeon DNA into the band-tailed pigeon’s genome to achieve a passenger-like hybrid that would be released into the wild.
David Blockstein, senior scientist for the National Council for Science and the Environment, has been following Brand’s project. Blockstein, an ornithologist, has written about the complex storm of forces that drove the passenger pigeon to extinction. His opinion on resurrecting the pigeon from the dead?
“It ain’t going to be done,” Blockstein told me recently. Even if a suitable facsimile of the bird were created, it would be nearly impossible to reintroduce a creature that lived in sky-sized flocks and depended on nesting colonies of thousands or millions to protect its single-egg nests from predators. “To be successful, you would have to have something on the order of maybe 1,000 but probably more likely 10,000 passenger pigeons to be able to live in the wild. The odds against it are just staggering.”
But he doesn’t dismiss using genetic engineering to aid conservation.
“If I was controlling the money, I would be putting it all into trying to understand and probably breed resistance in frogs to the Chytrid fungus, which is just rampant in frog populations worldwide,” he said. “And here’s potentially where we’re going to lose a whole subclass of animals. And that’s happening on our watch.”
Other conservationists are beginning to think along the same lines. Kent Redford, former lead scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and now head of Archipelago Consulting, has organized a WCS conference this spring in Cambridge, England, that will consider the gnarly intersection of synthetic biology, nature and conservation.
“I think it really isn’t on the radar screen of the conservation community at all,” says Redford. “I saw a need for this meeting because this field is offering enormous potential in a whole different set of human endeavors. And the conservation community has the potential to be tremendously affected by the activities of synthetic biology. And yet we as a field are very often the last ones to learn about new innovations in society. And I got tired of always being in the group that never knew about the latest thing.”
Think about it: Engineering a white pine immune to blister rust or North American ash trees impervious to emerald ash borer. Creating microbes with voracious appetites for oil spills. Breeding crops with higher yields or less hunger for fertilizer. Or restoring the American chestnut, which once cast tall shadows across the eastern United States until it was virtually wiped out by a fungus-caused blight.
“There are a lot of opportunities to be thinking of these things,” says Redford.
Frightening to contemplate? Yes, a bit. But exciting, too, for all the possibilities.
Greg Breining writes about science, nature and travel. He is the author of “Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness” and “Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak.”
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.