Beth Shapiro: The Young Science of Ancient DNA

It is difficult to overstate the influence and guidance Beth Shapiro has lent to the field paleogenomics and the work of Revive & Restore. Beth is one of our Board Members as well as an advisor for our Passenger Pigeon Project. As Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Beth uses the DNA recovered from bones and other remains to study how species have evolved through time and how human activity has affected this dynamic process. She is also a fantastic speaker, conveying great enthusiasm for her field of research. You can read Beth’s full bio here.

This week, Beth spoke at the World Economic Forum about the young science of ancient DNA. She discussed what is known about the Woolly Mammoth’s natural history, the cause of their extinction, and the complex science required for their de-extinction. Fortunately, you don’t need to travel to Davos. You can watch the full video, here:

At the end of the Ice Age, melting glaciers caused water levels to rise. This created islands that confined populations of Woolly Mammoths, which impacted their genetic fitness and eventually led to their extinction. Today, Beth says, farms, highways, and border walls are acting as a rising water—isolating populations of animals and putting entire species at risk of extinction. She calls for creativity and conservation to counteract this “islandization” of today’s endangered species.

Take for instance what efforts are needed to revive the Woolly Mammoth: Ancient DNA sequences from the extinct bohemoths, combined successfully with living Asian Elephant cells, using CRISPR gene editing technology, and a whole lot of technical advancements still to come. Today this visionary work is being led by the George Church Lab At Harvard. The research will first lead to living cells that bear just a resemblance to cells of the Woolly. But it’s likely to lead to important developments for the Asian elephant—like a much needed vaccine for the deadly endotheliotropic herpesvirus. Before the Woolly Mammoth walks again, the research will lead to the development of a “genetic rescue toolkit” that can conceivably bolster genetic diversity, facilitate adaption, and protect against disease.

Once again, Beth said it best. “We shouldn’t ignore these potentially transformative new applications [in] biotechnology. We should be growing our toolbox of conservation approaches.”