The passenger pigeon is an odd case of extinction – it died out not centuries ago, but in 1914, within the lifetime of some people living today. Its extinction shocked the world, going from a population of billions to being hunted into extinction in a relatively short time. Once Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon bid farewell at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the world assumed they were gone for good, but perhaps not: The Great Passsenger Pigeon Comeback, the flagship project of genetics group Revive & Restore, aims to see to it that passenger pigeons fly among us once more.
To reach their goal, they intend to employ some genetic wizardry. “The goal of The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback is to bring the passenger pigeon all the way back using the genome of the band-tailed pigeon and state-of-the-art genomic technology,” they wrote on their website. “The genomes of the two birds will be compared in close detail, to determine which differences are most crucial. The data and analysis will begin with the process of converting viable band-tailed DNA into viable passenger pigeon DNA.”
As complicated as that sounds, Revive & Restore says that the passenger pigeon “offers relative technical practicality for the scientific work of de-extinction.” The project also won’t be easy, likely costing millions of dollars and taking at least a decade to raise a sustainable population. Though some are bound to have ethical quandaries with the idea of de-extinction, others view it as a sort of retribution for the damage mankind has dealt to the planet.
“This was a real wake-up call for the public and frankly for scientists, too,” said Helen James, curator of birds at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of History. “Ornithologists studied birds and they didn’t really think of species becoming extinct.”
Presently, Revive & Restore is initiating research designs for the isolation and culturing of band-tailed pigeon primordial germ cells. This is expected to be the project’s greatest hurdle.