Avian Expert Articles

Can “De-Extinction” Bring the Passenger Pigeon Back?

Passenger pigeon specimen at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Photo by Tim Evanson, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

In nature, things happen in unexpected ways. As change moves forward, one of the unfortunate results is that all manner of biological beings inevitably face extraordinary circumstances against that which have served them well for so long. So long, in fact, that we don’t even have proper history of much of it. As historical data began to accumulate, thanks to the extraordinary interests and feats of a few scientists, we have come to vitally recognize what was -and still is- important to many species in terms of habitat, food, predator safety, and climate. Many once vibrant creatures became extinct due to overwhelming changes that did not allow for the sustaining of that species’ kind. With science, however, extinction could now become a reversible event.

In recent years, a science referred to as de-extinction has become more than a flight of fancy in the minds of scientists, especially biologists. To date, science have produced remarkable tools – all still in their infancy, and all looked upon in various degrees of ethics. “Jurassic Park,” the popular novel and movie series, entertained the concept of reintroducing age-old dinosaurs using DNA extracted from fossils of these ancient creatures and merging them with existing animals likely extended from the lineage of the dinosaurs. However, in actual science, it’s been realized that DNA ages to the point it becomes unusable. That keeps challenging storylines like “Jurassic Park” from becoming reality.

The Great Passenger Pigeon’s Comeback?

In 1914, the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha, made it to 29 years of age before her unfortunate death. She had never laid a fertile egg and, therefore, the reality of the passenger pigeon died with her. But now, some 105 years later, the technology of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats…say that fast!) has single-handedly promised a new era of gene-editing that has a wide array of applications and potential solutions – including human disease management – that could play a large role in what is being referred to as “resurrection biology” or, more to the point – “species revivalism.” 

A project known as The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback is in the oversight of Ben Novak, a scientist with an interest in ancient DNA. At the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, Novak learned the process of DNA extraction as well as properly sequencing Mastodon fossils. With his current work at the Long Now Foundation, where he has been employed since 2012, he has helped to further establish the core intent of Revive and Restore the extinct passenger pigeon. 

The five stages of the de-extinction program for the passenger pigeon include:

  1. Comparing the genome of the extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) with that of the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) to assure compatibility.
  2. Identifying the right areas of the band-tailed pigeon genome to edit with CRISPR
  3. Editing the germ-line of the Band-tailed pigeons
  4. Successfully breeding a new generation of passenger pigeons in captivity
  5. Reintroducing the new species of passenger pigeons into the wild, with extensive conditioning to help them survive in the wild and close monitoring

A studied approach to the Passenger Pigeon Project will give you a greater realization of the entire project. In addition, the noble purpose of the necessary revitalization of the ecology of North America’s eastern forests, of which the passenger pigeon is thought to be a vital part, is a sought after effect. You can further explore that here.

In addition to Novak’s active work on the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon, he is equally interested in producing a widely shared and available database of extinct species with complete genome information and genetic mapping, all in the hopes of the de-extinction of other species.

With this new science and its upcoming potential successes, the possibilities for the de-extinction of many birds, including those who most recently became extinct – like the Spix’s macaw, or blue macaw, (Cyanopsitta spixii )–can be realized.

What Is CRISPR?

CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea (the domain of single-celled microorganisms). These organisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, including Cas9, to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. They do so primarily by chopping up and destroying the DNA of a foreign invader. When these components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes, or “editing.” Here’s an example of a CRISPR research in action to save the Northern white rhino here.

2 thoughts on “Can “De-Extinction” Bring the Passenger Pigeon Back?

  1. This is a fascinating development and may indeed be the hope of species that we thought were lost forever.

    However, the bigger problem is that, without an evolved leap forward in the minds of humans, there is a very real danger that we will continue to hunt, poach and otherwise kill for “fun” and greed because we can ALWAYS just bring any species back. Or worse, now the means exists for us to re-create those creatures that we specifically want to kill, for canned hunts. The potential for misuse or abuse is frightening – because the human need to kill is frightening.

    There ideally should be oversight and ethics rules on this to make sure that de-extinction is never used for the wrong purposes and certainly never falls into the hands of those who would use this technology for trophy killing..

  2. I agree with Arlene Steinberg about the abuse that this could lead to. There is always the possibility that the “WRONG” people will get this technology anyway. There is always a wrong person at the beginning or along the line that can be bought, and there is always a wrong person at the end who is willing to use this knowledge to do wrong for a profit. I have very mixed emotions about all of this. I would love to see bird, etc. brought back (especially the passenger pigeon) but —-

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