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Extinct Passenger Pigeon to Make a Comeback

Jun 19, 2014 10:35 AM EDT

A group of geneticists are currently working to bring the extinct passenger pigeon back to life using DNA technology, hopefully allowing this once abundant species to make a comeback.

As part of the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback project, the non-profit organization Revive & Restore aims to essentially wake the dead in a process referred to as de-extinction. This is the group's first attempt to revive an extinct animal using museum-specimen DNA - a technique that, if successful, may one day be applied to other extinct species as well.

"The goal... 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," wrote Revive & Restore. "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."

Three centuries ago, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant species on Earth, according to the Associated Press. Their numbers reached as high as five billion at one point, with one flock spotted in Ontario in 1866 taking 14 hours to pass. Climate, food and other factors contributed to their decline, but overhunting and land clearing are mainly to blame for their downward spiral.

"Here was a bird like the robin that everybody knew and within a generation or two, it was gone - and we were its cause," said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm.

Geneticists chose the passenger pigeon in particular for this project because it is seen as a "model species" - one that is feasible to bring back successfully while also presenting scientists with a challenge.

"An extinct mouse would be an easy win for de-extinction," they said, "but it does not challenge us to produce the methods necessary to revive birds or reptiles."

So far, researchers have analyzed the DNA of 12 passenger pigeons to try to assemble the full genomic code and are now looking for the most viable full genome sequencing candidate.

The last surviving passenger pigeon, the famous Martha, died 100 years ago at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, officially marking the species as extinct. Her death, even at a ripe 29 years of age, shocked scientists and the public.

Though Revive & Restore has yet to report any breakthroughs in their work, Martha will soon be raised from the dead, in a way. Though not in live form, she will be debuting in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit opening June 24, to serve as a reminder to the public of her death and of other species that have gone extinct because of humans.

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