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Wherein we talk about what it means to 'De-Extinct' - pet dinosaurs? Probably not.

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The Brain Scoop is hosted by:
Emily Graslie

Written By:
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A round of applause to Martina Šafusová, Deanna Mavis, Katerina Idrik, Sabrina, Tony Chu, and Seth Bergenholtz for providing closed captions on this video! Whew, it was a doozy.

Today we're going to talk about de-extinction.

De-extinction is the process of making extinct things not extinct anymore. There's a lot of buzz about it right now in the scientific community due to recent advancements in synthetic biology.

Awesome! I get to ride a brontosaurus! Or do I? Are we really bringing back extinct animals? What is really happening here?

There are various complicated reasons why these species would not be the same animals that walked the Earth hundreds or thousands of years ago. To de-extinct a species requires finding a specimen with viable DNA. For instance, a hundred-year-old passenger pigeon from a museum drawer or a four-thousand-year-old woolly mammoth found thawing in an iceberg in the Arctic.  The reason these animals are being targeted for de-extinction is because they have close living relatives that are still living with us today, for instance, your average rock pigeon or the African elephant.

The Jurassic Park idea isn't really realistic because, unfortunately, DNA degrades over time, meaning we not going to have pet velociraptors any time soon. As cool as it would be to hide one in your sister's closet.

De-extinction works by extracting the genetic material out of one of these viable specimens, picking out the parts of the DNA which makes that animal unique, replicating those genes, and then implanting them into the egg of a compatible cousin. That's hot.

So, really, we're not resurrecting extinct passenger pigeons. We're kind of just forcing modern day pigeons to give birth to weird modern-slash-extinct hybrid pigeons.

But even before we get that far, we've got some hurdles to overcome. Even if you were able to extract enough viable DNA from a museum specimen, the environmental impact on the growth of the fetus could result in an inaccurate representation of that animal. A woolly mammoth grown in an elephant inside of a zoo is going to develop much differently than an actual woolly mammoth grown in an actual woolly mammoth in the tundra.

A common example of how a fetus's environment can effect its development is found in identical twins. They have the exact same DNA, but they end up with different fingerprints. Because the fetuses occupy different areas of the womb, interestingly enough, that affects how their fingerprints develop.

Now try to think about growing an extinct animal in the womb of a totally different animal in a different habitat with a different environment and a different diet and probably a totally different favorite episode of Glee.

So we've talked a little bit about how de-extinction works, at least in theory, but what about the moral implications of it? We'll cover that next time in The Brains of our Lives. 

This episode of The Brain Scoop was generously brought to you by And, they're giving away a free audio book to viewers of The Brain Scoop, which means this is an awesome opportunity for you guys to check out some of my favorite books about natural history, like Between Man and Beast : An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel. You can get your free audio book by going to Thanks for watching and remember Free. Free audio book. That's zero dollars. That's less money than a postage stamp.

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