Britt Wray’s Crash Course in De-Extinction

Meet our favorite science storyteller—and let her explain why you'll never see the woolly mammoth alive, after all.
Photograph by Arden Wray
Photo credit: Arden Wray

Interview by Polina Bachlakova

For years, the idea of resurrecting a majestic, mythical species – such as the woolly mammoth, or the sabre-toothed tiger, or even a dinosaur – has been a staple of humankind’s fantasies. The idea has always possessed ultimate science fiction status: although bringing the extinct back to life seemed seductively futuristic, it also seemed completely unattainable—until now.

In recent years, scientists all over the world have been working on ‘de-extinction’ projects—trying to recreate animals like the woolly mammoth, or the carrier pigeon, or the Pyrenian Ibex. For the most part, the media has portrayed these efforts through a pretty dramatic lens, painting de-extinction as an equal process to cloning rife with ethical dilemmas such as unnecessary exercise in human power. So if you’re learning about de-extinction through the media’s lens, you’ll probably get a little bit freaked out—which is why we’re thankful we have Britt Wray to offer us a more practical view on de-extinction as a whole.

Britt Wray is a Copenhagen-based radio and interactive documentary producer and a PhD candidate at the University of Copenhagen, studying science communication with a focus on synthetic biology. She also calls herself a ‘science storyteller’: she’ll delve into art, science, biology and everything in between, and make whatever she finds compelling and actually accessible for all people—from science lovers to those who flunked chem class and never looked back. She’s kind of a shapeshifter, too: one day, she’ll write an article explaining why a rose won’t smell like a rose anymore, and the next, she’ll embark on a sound recording expedition in Iceland with a bunch of artists. As long as she thinks it’s a fascinating story, she’ll go for it—and recently, the main story she’s been exploring is that of de-extinction.

De-extinction is the focus of Britt’s first book; throughout its pages, she talks to the scientists pursuing de-extinction projects and tries to expose what drives them. It’s coming out in 2017, but we didn’t want to wait that long. We asked her to give us a crash course in de-extinction—and let us know if we should expect to see a Woolly Mammoth hangin’ out on earth by the time we’re 95.

The Woolly Mammoth. Photo credit: Tyler Ingram
The Woolly Mammoth, or the most iconic animal amongst those within de-extinction efforts. Photo credit: Tyler Ingram

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Britt. The whole idea of de-extinction is a lot for the average person to digest. What’s the biggest misconception or confusion around it?

Britt Wray: People think of de-extinction as bringing back an extinct species, but you can’t actually resurrect something that has gone instinct—not in its 100% identical genetic and behavioural form, at least. Instead, you can assemble DNA from old tissue and bone samples of an extinct species and edit that into the collection of genes inside a closely related living species. You can also implant a reconstruction of its ancient DNA in an egg cell of a living species for cloning, or in some cases, simply use breeding techniques to try and create an animal that looks like the extinct one you’re after. In all cases, you’re essentially creating a hybridized creature that acts as close as possible to an extinct animal, rather than making a carbon copy of the one that’s already gone.

The word ‘de-extinction’ implies bringing a species back to life, though, not creating a new one that’s a close version of the extinct one. Do you think it’s all that important for people to get the difference?

Well, this is a really sexy science. It’s so easy to sensationalize. It’s not like you can just bring back wild species that have roamed around in our imaginations but never in our actual ecosystems when we’ve been alive. That’s not the case. I think the reality of the case is even more interesting—because there are now so many different technologies you can leverage to make approximate versions of extinct species. That’s important, because you can then use those same technologies to stop species from going extinct in the future. I think the whole confusion about de-extinction is a really clear example of science communication overhyping itself to talk about these fantastic futures.

Glamour aside, what are the main arguments for actually pursuing de-extinction?

The main argument that gets repeated a lot is that it’s about ecological restoration. Ecosystems are complex, dynamic and full of different species; when important species go extinct, things can get affected on a pretty wide level. Those important species are called keystone species and basically hold an ecosystem together. The argument for de-extinction is that we can produce benefits to the environment by bringing back the roles of disappeared keystone species that were once really crucial for it.

What makes a keystone species worthy of a de-extinction attempt?

That’s still open for debate. However, there are guidelines being written about it and some suggestions that revolve around a few important things. How important was this species to an ecosystem? Did it have a huge role to play for the other species that live there now? Has the environment changed negatively since it disappeared and would bringing it back restore some integrity to the ecosystem?

You also need to determine if all of the threats that made the species go extinct in the first place are no longer around. Are there any predators that would threaten it? Are there any infectious diseases or parasites that have harmed them in the past? Are they at risk of being hunted by humans? You have to make sure you won’t make it go extinct again.

Does there have to be some sort of unanimous agreement in the scientific community before scientists choose a species for de-extinction?

No. There’s no kind of standardized platform where people say, yes, this was a keystone species, and yes, now we’re going to try and bring it back. You must remember the scale of the projects: we’re talking about a very small amount of scientists in different spots all over the world who are interested in this and funding their projects through donation, or leftover money from grants they have from other research. There’s no law in place telling them what to do, so they’re pursuing their projects because they want to.

This is actually an area of enormous debate: scientists have completely opposing views on the merits of individual de-extinction projects going on.

If you bring an extinct species into an ecosystem it used to be part of, who’s to say the ecosystem didn’t change throughout those years—so how would you know that bringing the species back would do anything positive?

That’s one reason why de-extinction is such an epically challenging scientific movement: no one can say for sure how a species will behave once it’s reinserted into an ecosystem. No one can guarantee that a resurrected species would be able to live out the role of an extinct species if it were to be placed in an ecosystem that we have today. The whole movement is based on theory that it would work. They’re only trying to find evidence that it could work now.

It sounds like it’s pretty obvious that the idea of de-extinction is flawed—so what’s the main critique against it?

A lot of scientists argue that it’s actually unecological to think that inserting a new form of extinct species will have the effect that you want it to. Perhaps it will have all forms of new effects and create an emergent ecosystem you didn’t predict. Perhaps it could act as an invasive species and threaten present species.

What steps do scientists take to make sure their de-extinction efforts turn out as positively as possible?

They try to set up small environments where they can test a few of these species. Take the example of the passenger pigeon. Scientist Ben Novak is working on creating a bird that has a lot of the passenger pigeon genes, so that it can live and act like the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. Once he gets some experimental birds – and if he gets them to start working despite the many scientific hurdles – he is going to set up controlled aviaries. There, he can bring in other pigeons to teach these experimental birds how to live and act like pigeons. Eventually, he can focus on observing how these experimental pigeons interact with the rest of the ecosystem. Then, he can make the testing canopies a little bit bigger, so eventually he can do experimental flock flying between different sites in the US.

All of that has to happen before these pigeons get released into the environment. I mean, we’re talking decades of experimentation and monitoring with this pigeon. So, we need some long term thinking to really grapple with the realities of what de-extinction might look like.

If there results of de-extinction are uncertain and it’s a super long process, what’s the point? It sounds a bit like doing it for the sake of doing it, or playing God.

I never like to use the language of ‘playing God’. I don’t think that meddling with nature equates with some type of grand, moralistic gesture we will never be able to step back from once we reach. We are increasingly figuring out how to play with the building blocks of life; this is just one very sensational area where scientists are applying that knowledge. Should we do this, just because we can? Not necessarily. Is there a lot of ego involved in attempting to be the first to do something remarkable like this? Perhaps. Are scientists saying that outright? Absolutely not. So, it’s not for me to wrap it up that way and summarise it, but at least it seems that scientists are focusing on ecological restoration as justification for it—rather than simply because it’s cool.

However, given the amount of uncertainties we’re dealing with, it does seem and feel like a cool technological project more than a crutch for the environment in a time of ecosystem decays and shifts.

Since writing this book has given you such in-depth knowledge about de-extinction, do you have a judgment on it?

At the beginning, I was really cynical and skeptical about de-extinction and what it might do. It felt like there was a lot of ego and hubris surrounding the idea that we should be creating an extinct species when there are so many unknowns involved. It seemed like an opportunity for something flashy and technologically advanced and I was curious about the motivations behind it. However, as I spent more and more time talking to people who have spent years pursuing this – remember, there are very few people doing this and it’s a very fringe activity – I realized that this is an enormous passion for some scientists. To them, it’s an absolute call to arms to try to make a difference in the world and to try to mimic species they loved so much that are now gone. I’m not as cynical about their motives anymore.

I think that each case for each animal has an interesting team of people working on it, but at the end of the day, I look at it as an interesting technological feat rather than an environmental necessity. I think it would be helpful if we could talk about it that way rather than try to judge, with broad brushstrokes, which Frankenstein futures this might be opening up.

Thanks, Britt.

Models of the passenger pigeon, currently a focus of a de-extinction project. Photo credit: How I See Life
Models of the passenger pigeon, currently a focus of a de-extinction project. Photo credit: How I See Life