About five billion passenger pigeons inhabited North America’s temperate forests when European settlers arrived and began hunting the birds and destroying their habitat. The last survivor blinked out in 1914, but she—or something very like her—could hatch again, by inscribing genetic codes salvaged from museum specimens into the genomes of band-tailed pigeons, the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative. With guidance from leading geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and ornithologists, passenger pigeon expert Ben Novak is heading up the ambitious effort for Revive & Restore. Considerable technical hurdles remain, but if the work takes wing, it could help save living species on the edge of extinction, too.
Why the passenger pigeon?
I’ve always been a bird person. For my eighth-grade science fair I did a research project on the dodo: how much tissue was available, whether you could get the entire genome, how you’d stick the DNA back together, and what technological advances would be necessary. I won my junior high division. I also learned the dodo was basically a giant pigeon, which got me interested in pigeons. Then, coincidentally, I opened up an Audubon book, Speaking for Nature, and there was a picture of a stuffed passenger pigeon. Aesthetically I fell in love with that image. And when I read its story, it gripped me on a personal level.
Can you really get a healthy population from a few museum specimens?
The amazing thing about this concept is that we can essentially design the population we start with. If we’re willing to create one individual, then through the exact same processes we can produce individuals belonging to completely different genetic families. We can make 10 individuals that, when they’re mated, will have an inbreeding coefficient near zero. There’s even been talk that just eight genetically unique individuals is enough to reconstitute a population. First we need to discern what the actual genetic structure of the species was. We can analyze enough tissue samples to get at that genetic diversity.
Couldn’t resurrections distract from traditional conservation efforts?
The things we’re doing to bring one species back also translate directly to saving species that are still alive but going through population bottlenecks. Take cheetahs: We can discover what kinds of alleles and genes have been lost, then restore those. Then we’re not reviving an extinct species, but extinct genes.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Welcome Back."