The Role of AI in Resurrecting Extinct Speciesby@zacamos
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The Role of AI in Resurrecting Extinct Species

by Zac AmosApril 22nd, 2024
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AI can be used in every step of the de-extinction process, including genome sequencing, filling DNA gaps after sequencing, gene insertion, and embryo transfer, growth, and birth. Though there are ethical and technological complications, de-extinction shows promise for improving global health, combating climate change, and righting the wrongs of humanity's past.
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“Jurassic Park” may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Scientists have been trying to find ways to bring extinct species back to life for some time now, and AI could finally make it happen.

While some regulators call AI an extinction-level threat, the opposite may also be true. It could reverse extinction — perhaps not for dinosaurs, but feasibly for species like the woolly mammoth. Doing so could also play an important role in the fight against climate change.

How De-Extinction Works

De-extinction is the culmination of many cutting-edge technologies. It starts with gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, and AI helps throughout the entire process. Here’s a closer look at how it works.

Genome Sequencing

The first step in de-extinction is to collect the DNA of an extinct animal — like the woolly mammoth — and a close living relative — like the Asian elephant. While usable dinosaur DNA samples may be long gone, the mammoth’s relatively recent extinction and cold habitat mean it still has well-preserved genes.

Once scientists have gathered this DNA, they must sequence each species’ genome. This process uncovers the order of each gene’s building blocks to learn how they work and what characteristics they produce. It’s difficult and time-consuming work, so it’s an ideal use case for AI.

Studies show that AI shortens the time spent in genome sequencing and reduces errors in the process. Speed and accuracy are big concerns here, so AI is now essential in this stage of de-extinction.

Filling in the Gaps

After sequencing both species’ genomes, scientists compare them to see what elephant genes they must change to resemble the woolly mammoth’s. AI is crucial in this step, as there are gaps left to fill after sequencing. DNA has a 521-year half-life, so even well-preserved samples from over 1,000 years ago aren’t complete.

AI can analyze genes to predict the order of the missing bits. It can then compare them to those of the Asian elephant to determine what elephant genes it can keep and what it must modify to look more like a mammoth.

Machine learning’s predictive capabilities make it the perfect tool for this job. Accurately predicting what customers want is how AI saves Netflix $1 billion annually, and finding similarities in DNA sequences is a similar task.

Gene Insertion and Verification

It’s now time to modify Asian elephant genes to essentially create complete woolly mammoth DNA. This process is eerily similar to how it works in “Jurassic Park,” at least in the basics.

Like in Michael Crichton’s work, real-life scientists cut out bits of living species’ DNA that don’t match and insert genes from the extinct species. This is possible through a technology called CRISPR gene editing — the same innovation that helps fight diseases like sickle cell anemia and malaria.

After inserting mammoth genes into elephant DNA, scientists must verify that the resulting cells possess mammoth traits. Once again, AI is the ideal solution. Machine learning can test these cells faster and more accurately than manual methods.

Embryo Transfer, Growth, and Birth

At this point, scientists will have created hybrid elephant-mammoth cells. They remove the nucleus from an Asian elephant egg cell and replace it with the hybrid mammoth nucleus. They then stimulate the egg so it fertilizes and grows into an embryo.

Once they have a healthy embryo, scientists transfer it to an African elephant to carry to term. African elephants are larger and have the longest pregnancy of any mammal, so they’re ideal mothers to grow a baby mammoth.

After roughly 22 months, the elephant will give birth to the hybrid mammoth. While the mammoth’s genes won’t be identical to its extinct ancestors, it’ll essentially be a real woolly mammoth brought back from extinction.

Ongoing De-Extinction Attempts

Several research organizations are following this process to de-extinct species like the woolly mammoth. One biotechnology company — Colossal Laboratories — aims to resurrect the woolly mammoth by 2027 and is currently building the necessary genetic libraries to create the hybrid DNA.

Colossal also hopes to de-extinct species like the dodo and Tasmanian tiger. While no project has successfully cloned an extinct species that lived more than a few minutes, advances in AI and gene editing technology are bringing the possibility closer.

Other researchers are focusing on critically endangered species — not quite extinct but about to be. Scientists have successfully cloned a black-footed ferret using decades-old DNA, showing it’s possible to de-extinct animals with old genes. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo Alliance are trying to do the same for the northern white rhino, just two of which exist today.

Why It Matters

As cool as it is, why would scientists bother de-extincting species? It’s an expensive, complicated process, so what’s the point?

Unlike in “Jurassic Park,” there is a noble goal here. Bringing extinct or critically endangered species back could help protect the planet.

Woolly mammoths could help fight climate change, as these animals clear dead or invasive tree species to restore grasslands. Bringing more recently extinct animals back to life would restore a full, healthy ecosystem in some areas to protect other species. In cases like the white rhino, it would right the wrongs of humanity’s past by reversing forced extinction.

If nothing else, successful de-extinction would be a big step forward for AI in genetic engineering. It would prove this technology’s potential to fight seemingly impossible odds. Scientists already believe AI-powered gene editing could improve global health and combat climate change, so any advances in the field are worth noticing.

Ethical Complications

Despite this vast potential, AI-powered de-extinction has some controversy. Some argue that bringing species like the woolly mammoth into a warmer, harsher climate, which they’re not well-adapted to, may be cruel to these animals. There’s also the argument that the money and time spent on this research could go to other, more immediate climate and health issues.

Some also have fears about AI gene editing going too far. Successful de-extinction could snowball into issues of people genetically modifying humans to have unique abilities or creating dangerous genetic weapons. Many of these fears are theoretical but deserve attention as this field advances.

AI Could Bring Species Back From the Dead

While there are still some ethical and technological complications, de-extinction shows promise. It would be a major step forward for biotechnology if these projects work out, and AI will likely be the difference-maker.

AI has plenty of ethical and environmental concerns. However, it’s hard to deny its potential for protecting the natural world. Using it for conservation efforts could ensure the world benefits more from this technology than it suffers.