Monday, March 23, 2015


As science ideas and experiments go, the cloning or "de-extincting" of a mammoth may seem nothing more than a time-consuming (perhaps decades) and expensive (perhaps billions) act of ego and fancy. But is that really all it is? Or what it is at all?

Before sitting down with Beth Shapiro's How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, I might have thought so. Hell, we can't seem to take proper care of the flora and fauna we have left and many of our own failures, intentional or otherwise, have been the cause of past extinctions. How would the ability to de-extinct impact our present complacency and interaction with the planet? Would it "let us off the hook" for past and future missteps?

Now that I've read Shapiro's work, I still have concerns (as one should), but much of the rationale behind the research as Shapiro sees it is geared towards restoring ecosystems we've lost or are in danger of losing. So how does one go about de-extincting a species and how close are we? You might be surprised.

Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist and Assistant Professor in the UC Santa Cruz Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, knows of what she speaks. In How to Clone a Mammoth she discusses the hows, whys and should-wes of ongoing efforts in her field, whether they be geared towards an actual cloning, which requires a living cell, or the recreation ("genetic engineering") of various traits and behaviors of an extinct species in an existing one.

As to the hows, if it's down and dirty science you're after, this book will be nirvana. I found the science portions read a bit like a textbook, which is perhaps impossible to avoid when you're dealing with such a heady subject. Shapiro discusses pure cloning to some extent, but the focus is on genetic engineering.

The book is therefore unsurprisingly full of discussions about genotypes and phenotypes, gene fragments, gene stitching, and gene base pairs to name just a few phrases I'll be dropping at my next cocktail party. I have trouble with a sewing machine, so getting a firm (ok, ok, semi-firm, leaning towards loose) grasp on the concept of gene stitching and the like took some reading and rereading.

The whys and the what-ifs and the should-wes were, in this instance, more thrilling subjects for me, a science layperson. The idea that we can resurrect extinct traits by engineering them into living organisms and use the "new" species to change an ecosystem for the better is a bit mind-blowing and, as stated by Shapiro, "the real value of de-extinction technology."

If an extinct species filled an important niche within its ecosystem, its loss likely resulted in a "chaotic destabilization" of that ecosystem. Restoring the traits of that species in an existing one may enable a restoration of species interactions and restabilize the ecosystem, saving other species from extinction. If you've at all followed the story of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, that's a great example of this theory in action. Taking what we can learn from ancient DNA sequencing and using genetic engineering, we could do the same thing in habitats that have lost the benefit of certain animal traits altogether through extinction.

Even niftier, Shapiro reports that genetic engineering can also have a positive impact on global warming. This one blew my mind. I won't spoil the story with too much detail, but suffice to say reintroducing "mammoths" (i.e., cold-tolerant Asian elephants genetically engineered to be mammoth-like) to Siberia may actually slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Shapiro asks plenty of good questions in How to Clone a Mammoth, many of which obviously don't yet have answers, only possibilities. But they provide good fodder for the issue of whether and how such science and research should and might continue to advance. And while these ideas may seem a bit scary, Shapiro convinced me of the value of genetic engineering for ecological resurrection purposes. I'll even forgive her for confirming DNA is not preserved in amber, thus debunking the science of Jurassic Park.

STREET SENSE:  Whether you're into deep and heady science, just want to know more about how genetic engineering might impact your world, or both, this book is for you. If you're the latter, you might skim some of the heavier sciencey parts, but there's still a ton of fascinating information to keep your mind spinning.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I underlined a ton of passages in the book and take this section of my reviews quite seriously, but today I have to share what kept making me laugh out loud (because I'm 5). The author works in the field of ancient DNA and works in a lab, so the lab is always referred to as the "ancient DNA lab," which kept giving me visuals of an old, creepy laboratory where Gene Wilder was conducting experiments on mammoths. Sorry, not sorry.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I really liked this cover, it was clean and simple and got the point across. However, there is nothing clean and simple about what is inside, and I was somewhat surprised at the level of science imparted by the author. Not that it wasn't welcome, but I think the friendly nature of the cover lulled me into a false sense of "you'll understand everything the author is going to tell you." If you do, I want to have you over for dinner so you can explain a few things.


Shannon @ River City Reading said...

This is the first I'm hearing of this, but it has my name all over it! Most science is a little outside my humanities bubble, but I love nonfiction that can make it interesting and easy to understand.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

This one was very interesting, but I don't think I'd put it in the easy to understand category. Maybe it was just my mindset while reading. This didn't take away from my enjoyment too much, but something less textbook-ish would have been easier, methinks.

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating! I had never heard of this book before. Nonfiction always takes me a super long time to get through for whatever reason, so I imagine this would especially be the case with this book. But it definitely seems worth it. I just read a short story in Hall of Small Mammals last month about a cloned mammoth, so I'm invested in the idea already!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

It was fascinating, though very sciencey in parts, which I can imagine might slow things down. I ended up skim-reading a few parts, but overall I loved the theories and "what ifs" of the whole premise.

I bought Hall of Small Mammals on my last bookstore outing based on your review. Didn't even know there was a mammoth story in it - bonus!

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

Yay! Haha, I'm pretty sure it's the first story actually. It's a good one!

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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