I had posted a picture without much content that was on of my most popular blog posts: Bring back the mammoth! and in April I noticed that Beth Shapiro (a UCSC professor in ancient DNA) had published a book, How to Clone a Mammoth. My wife bought the book from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and I just finished reading it.
There was not much new technical material in the book for me (I’ve been to several of Beth Shapiro’s and Ed Green’s talks about ancient DNA, and I’ve read papers and heard talks on the CRISPR/CAS9 system for editing DNA), but the book is a well-written description of the technology and of the ethics involved in de-extinction. Dr. Shapiro has a fine sense of humor, so book is highly readable without the dry academic tone that mars many books written by professors.
The reading level of the book is carefully judged to be accessible to most adults (about a high-school reading level), and the content should be accessible to high-school students and advanced middle-school students. Despite the title, the book does not contain any detailed instructions on the techniques and processes used in recovering ancient DNA or editing genomes (most of which are tedious and difficult even for the grad students and postdocs who do them routinely). It does, however, provide a broad overview of the processes involved, what their limitations are, and why one might want to recover a species from extinction besides the “coolness” factor.
Dr. Shapiro is clearly in favor of de-extincting some species, but is also very clear that what she means by this is not what some people assume. She does not believe that it is possible to bring back mammoths and passenger pigeons as they were originally. What is feasible is to recover some of their lost genes and put them into closely related species (like Asian elephants and band-tailed pigeons), to get a hybrid species that can (perhaps) fill the ecological niches vacated by the extinct species. That is, we can’t get the original mammoths back, but we may be able to create a mammoth-like elephant that looks like a mammoth and can survive in the cold the way mammoths did.
She makes a good case for the environmental benefits for reintroducing some species to habitats that have lost them—particularly large herbivores like mammoths and giant tortoises, but she also presents the case against reintroduction fairly clearly (though her position is clear).
I highly recommend the book for high-school biology students, particularly home-schooled students, who have time to ponder some of the difficult ethical questions involved in de-extinction.