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Sixty years ago, scientist Francis Crick avoided breaking embargo on his own scientific publication about the structure of the DNA helix by writing the paper by first sending off a letter detailing his findings to his then 12-year-old son.

A few weeks ago, that same letter was auctioned off for over $5 million. The journal Nature, which originally published that seminal paper on the DNA helix by Crick and his colleague James Watson, made a copy of that letter available online prior to the sale.

“We think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life,” Crick wrote back in 1953. “You can understand that we are very excited.” The letter makes for a fascinating read,  in part because of the way Crick introduces and explains this significant discovery to a child.

Let go of heirlooms

Aside from the letter, the Crick family auctioned off the 1962 Nobel Prize medal that was awarded in recognition of the discovery of DNA. The family’s decision to let go of  arguably incredible heirlooms comes at a time when some researchers are seriously considering the feasibility of bringing back extinct species. This “deextinction” relies on technologies that make it possible to extract the DNA of long-dead species, read and assemble those genetic codes and then produce a living representative.

If the above description sounds familiar, chances are you might have heard it as part of the animated segment explaining how real dinosaurs came to fill an amusement park in the movie “Jurassic Park” 20 years ago, or in the 3D version  that recently hit the theaters. That explanation from an animated DNA helix started with extracting a dinosaur’s genetic information from flies trapped in amber millions of years ago. The genetic code was read or sequenced, any gaps were backfilled with frog DNA and the next image onscreen is that of eggs hatching to reveal baby dinosaurs.

The movie captured theatergoers’ imaginations, perhaps a bit too well. In recent years, researchers have proposed similar projects to bring back the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. Reading the mammoth’s DNA actually started several years ago, with a draft sequence of the animal’s code being released in 2008. With the data in hand, researchers from two countries announced last year plans to combine their efforts to produce a live mammoth several millenniums after it ceased to walk the earth. If the project succeeds, one question that comes to mind is how well the animal that thrived during an ice age would adapt to the planet’s current climate.

A more recent project that is trying to get off the ground involves passenger pigeons, birds that went extinct about a century ago. Proponents say they don’t need to source DNA from flies in amber or frozen soils; they’re looking at using genetic material from museum specimens. One of the challenges is convincing museums to let them take samples in order to start reading and assembling the bird’s genetic code.

Deextinction

Part of the ongoing discussion around deextinction involves whether or not having the ability to potentially do this means it should be done at all. Some argue in favor of bringing back long-lost species to possibly help restore damaged ecosystems, or else as a way to save currently endangered species. In the latter case, it’s hard not to think of the recent story about pangolin carcasses being smuggled into China.

Consider a scenario in which the pangolin’s genetic sequence had been figured out and used to restore the animal’s population to healthy numbers, to the delight of conservationists. One discussion to be had then is whether or not the success of conservation efforts, as aided by DNA technology, could be measured by the thriving trade in pangolin meat, under the notion that there will always be more available.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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