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Spec Interview with Hendrik Poinar

Could science bring the mammoth back to life?


(The following article is reprinted courtesy of The Hamilton Spectator, McMaster University’s partner in the Research in the City Lecture Series.)

October 23, 2015
Steve Buist, The Hamilton Spectator 

Woolly mammoths, mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, the North American lion, the poor maligned dodo bird — all vanished for good from the face of the Earth.

Or did they?

With recent advances in cloning techniques and the ability now to unravel the genetic material of animals living or dead, science is grappling with the possibility that extinct species could one day be brought back to life.

It's more than just a technological puzzle for scientists. The prospect of "de-extinction," as it's called, raises a number of ethical concerns as well.

Dr. Hendrik Poinar, a noted evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University, will discuss the pros and cons of de-extinction in a lecture Tuesday evening titled Reviving Extinct Species — Fiction or Fact?

His talk, which is free and open to the public, kicks off the newly renamed Research in the City lecture series, a joint partnership between McMaster and The Spectator, formerly known as Science in the City.

Poinar and his colleagues were the first group to put together the entire genetic sequence of the woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for more than 10,000 years.

"There's a lot of interesting science going on concerning what these lumbering beautiful beasts were doing during these relatively rough climatic periods when humans weren't around to muck around with them."

Poinar has earned worldwide acclaim for his work looking at various types of ancient genetic material, including the origins of the Black Death plague.

"This is catching evolution in action," he explained. "There's only so much you can do with modern genetic data.

"Using fossil genetic data to essentially time travel is what fascinates me."

One possible advantage of reintroducing extinct species is to help boost animal conservation and perhaps even stabilize certain ecosystems.

"How many times did you have the discussion with your parents about 'Everything is going to be dead when you get older and the only animals you get to see will be in a zoo,'" Poinar said. "It was just a constant downer, man.

"Even if it's a bit hype at this stage, if that means it generates fascination and interest in kids that isn't all about gloom and doom, then I think it's a good thing."

One of the cons, he said, "is that it becomes a 'Pleistocene Park.'"

"The last thing any ecologist or anybody who cares about these beasts wants is some gazillionaire making another gazillion dollars off mammoths with harnesses and little kiddies riding them," said Poinar.

"As you could well imagine, having a mammoth or a saber-tooth (tiger) at Disneyland would certainly generate a huge amount of revenue and that would be horrific, I think," he added. "It would be the complete antithesis of what de-extinction is about."

Another concern is that humans have encroached on many of the traditional habitats of some extinct species. Reintroducing the North American lion to the American Midwest, for instance, could prove to be tricky.

"Unless you had them fenced in, it might pose problems at certain malls and outlet stores," Poinar joked.

sbuist@thespec.com

905-526-3226