'De-extinction' of woolly mammoth possible in 30 to 50 years

Hendrik Poinar, a professor of evolutionary genetics at Hamilton's McMaster University who has mapped the genome of the woolly mammoth, is working on a process called "de-extinction."

McMaster Univesity prof Hendrik Poinar explains process

Woolly mammoths roamed both North America and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. Many went extinct during the most recent period of global warming. (George Teichmann/Yukon government)

Q: Could extinct species be brought back to life?

That was the fantasy of the classic film, Jurassic Park, but a Hamilton researcher thinks it can actually be done. Hendrik Poinar, professor of evolutionary genetics at McMaster University, is working on a process called "de-extinction." He's mapped the genome of the woolly mammoth.

Friday morning he spoke with CBC Radio's Matt Galloway before his appearance at a Toronto festival called Subtle Technologies. Here's an edited and abbreviated transcript of that interview. You can also listen to the interview by clicking the play button on this page.

Q: Without getting too technical, describe what you're doing to bring back animals like the woolly mammoth?

A: We're interested in the evolutionary history of these beasts. These lumbering animals lived about 10,000 years ago and went extinct. We've been recreating their genome in order to understand their origins and migrations and their extinction. That led to the inevitable discussion about if we could revive an extinct species and is it a good thing.

Q: Why is this so interesting to you?

There are reasons why these animals went extinct. It could be climate, it could be human-induced over-hunting. If we can understand the processes that caused extinction, maybe we can avoid them for current endangered species. Maybe we need to think about what we can do to bring back extinct species and restore ecosystems that are now dwindling.

Q: Is it possible to bring these things back to life?

Not now. We're looking at 30 to 50 years.

Q: How would you do something like that?

First thing you have to do is to get the entire blueprint. We have mapped the genome of the woolly mammoth. We're almost completely done with that as well as a couple other extinct animals. We can look at the discrete differences between a mammoth and an Asian elephant. We would take an Asian elephant chromosome and modify it with mammoth information. Technology at Harvard can actually do that. Take the modified chromosomes and put them into an Asian elephant egg. Inseminate that egg and put that into an Asian elephant and take it to term. It could be as soon as 20 years.

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Q: Is this such a good idea?

That's the million-dollar question. We're not talking about dinosaurs. We'll start with the herbivores — the non-meat eaters. We could use the technology to re-introduce diversity to populations that are dwindling like the cheetah or a wolf species we know are on the verge of extinction. Could we make them less susceptible to disease? Is it good for the environment? We know that the mammoths were disproportionately important to ecosystems. All the plant species survived on the backs of these animals. If we brought the mammoth back to Siberia, maybe that would be good for the ecosystems that are changing because of climate change.

Q: You are tinkering with the evolutionary process?

Yes, but would you feel differently if the extinction was caused by man like it was with the passenger pigeon or the Tasmanian wolf, which were killed by humans? Even the large mammoth, there are two theories on their extinction, one is overhunting by humans …and the other is climate. Do we have a moral obligation?