What do “de-extincted” wooly mammoths have in common with Florida panthers and chestnut trees? Dr. Beth Shapiro, a leading figure in ancient DNA research, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and director of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab, connected those unlikely dots in a lively, highly engaging National Geographic Live lecture at the Auditorium Theatre Sunday afternoon.
Shapiro, who regularly leads Arctic fossil-hunting expeditions and authored the 2015 book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press), walked the audience through three potential methods for bringing the extinct mammoth back to life. Two of them are impossible and the third–leveraging DNA sequencing and genome editing to modify an Asian elephant egg to produce a mammoth-like creature–is merely improbable.
A start-up, Colossal Biosciences, for which Shapiro serves as a consultant, is raising hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue bringing mammoths back for the first time in about 10,000 years. Shapiro notes no one is pumping that kind of dough into less sexy, but certainly more critical, efforts to save currently endangered animals and plants from extinction. But the good news, she relates, is that the research Colossal is funding promises to greatly aid efforts to reinvigorate populations of coral, chestnut trees, Florida panthers, black-footed ferrets and other threatened flora and fauna.
Judging by the Q&A at the end, the promise of saving those threatened species, which Shapiro revealed was the core point of the lecture, landed with only about half the audience. The other half wanted to get more specifics on how similar the modern mammoths might be to their prehistoric predecessors and where they might live.
Then again, it’s unlikely an audience of hundreds would show up at the Auditorium for a talk about cloning black-footed ferrets to create more diverse populations or genetically altering chestnut trees to hold off deadly fungal incursions. Sometimes, you need a little weird science about long-gone creatures to deliver the news about what it will take to save the still-living species that are hanging on by a thread,
The next lecture in the National Geographic Live series, Coral Kingdom and Empires of Ice, hits the Auditorium Theatre April 30 at 2 pm.
Photo by Kris Krug.