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By: Steven Chen/News Writer
We never really outgrow our childhood dreams of walking alongside extinct creatures. This fantasy has been vividly imagined in popular literary works, television shows and movies. The only thing left is for scientists to undertake the daunting task of bringing it to reality.
On Oct. 27, the compelling question of whether extinct species can truly be revived was discussed in the talk, “Reviving Extinct Species — Fiction or Fact”, featuring Prof. Hendrick Poinar, current director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University.
Prof. Poinar’s public lecture at the David Braley Health Sciences Centre marked the launch of the “Research in the City” series. The series, which was established by McMaster University in partnership with The Hamilton Spectator, aims to revitalize community interest in research done in Hamilton.
As an evolutionary biologist specializing in the genome of ancient species, Prof. Poinar offered a passionate recount of the work currently being done in the field. His team at McMaster has been investigating the DNA present in fossil remains for more than two decades — notably pushing research frontiers by using novel methods to sequence the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth.
The allure in uncovering the mystery to these extinct species has propelled Poinar to a life-long quest. “These are extinct creatures that once roamed the earth and then [simply] vanished. Why and what drives species to extinctions when they have managed well for so long?” Poinar asked.
The public lecture supported the prospect of reviving recently extinct species, such as the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian wolf. It is reassuring that in the grand scheme of biological evolution, these species have only vanished in recent memory. Remarkably, specimens of the woolly mammoth, who last trudged the earth 10,000 years ago, are still preserved intact in the Siberian tundra. This offers immense potential for scientists to extract the genetic information to make clones of extinct creatures in the future.
With the rapid development of genome sequencing technologies, Prof. Poinar offers foresight on the possibilities and dangers. “We can expect genome analysis [to occur] in minutes,” he said . . . “Should gene therapy become a reality, I hope mostly for the better, but the changes surrounding the ethics need to occur now.”
Whether or not we will be able to witness the marvel of the woolly mammoth or glimpse the ferocity of the saber-toothed cat remains a question. What is more important to consider is how our aspirations for the future are invested in the research being done on a local and global scale.
The “Research in the City” series hopes to continue engaging the public with upcoming talks, ranging from topics on the life and death of hitchBOT to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Radio Telescope.
Poinar mused, “Fascinating research is going on in Hamilton and the people have a right to know about what we do. The great thing about McMaster is that research is portrayed without the attitude, for the public to engage with at all levels.”
Photo Credit: Jason Lau/Photo Reporter