Turning science fiction into science

I read recently about a number of scientific advances in 2012 that would once have been possible only in science fiction. None of them seem especially surprising, considering previous scientific advances I already knew about.

Today, however, I was surprised to read a discussion of the pros and cons of bringing an extinct species back to life. I knew that cloning techniques had continued to develop since it first made big news. But I wasn’t aware that there was serious work on recovering DNA from extinct species for the purpose of creating live animals.

I also was surprised by some of the issues that are raised in this regard, as the science fiction accounts of this type of experimentation tend to leave out such practical matters. Finding a good enough sample of DNA is just the beginning. (Since no sample will ever be perfect, and some amount of guesswork based on similar living animals will be required, there is some debate over whether the resulting animal could truly be considered the same species as the extinct one it was based on.)

Considering the size of some extinct animals, one big challenge is finding an appropriate surrogate mother. Somehow that never seems to be an issue in science fiction – clones just somehow develop in labs, without having to be hatched or born. But even cloned birds need a mother bird big enough for the developing egg until it is laid.

Another is ecosystems. It’s obvious enough that having living dinosaurs around is not a good idea – either for them or us. But bringing back any extinct species – unless it has just become extinct – is going to be introducing a non-native species into whatever habitat it is put in. And that always throws off the balance that has developed among the native species.

Another surprise to me was the objections made by a lot of conservationists – I suppose because I don’t read enough in this area to be familiar with their concerns. Rather than being glad that species diversity would be increased, they are concerned that scarce resources would be spent on possibly futile attempts to revive extinct species, rather than on keeping endangered species from going extinct.

And then there’s always the question of whether we should be “playing God.” (That one does come up in science fiction.) Personally I don’t see cloning as “creating life,” only as changing the shape that life takes – though admittedly to a much greater degree than in traditional breeding programs. That doesn’t mean it’s wise to pursue, however.

I expect that sooner or later someone will be successful in cloning some extinct animal. And I will be interested in reading all about it.

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