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Will Woolly Mammoths Roam the Earth Again? Dr. Beth Shapiro visits UCD

On Thursday the 27th of September, Dr. Beth Shapiro, author of popular-science bestseller ‘How to clone a mammoth’ sat down to speak to the College Tribune before her presentation to UCD Biological Society.

‘Be brave, be confident, be open and don’t spend too much time on Twitter’ urged Dr. Beth Shapiro, as a packed Elan Theatre rose to their feet to congratulate the world-famous molecular biologist on receiving the George Sigerson Award for Inspiring Aspiring Scientists from UCD Biological Society. 

Speaking exclusively to the College Tribune, Bio-Soc Auditor Sophia Heneghan explained her reasoning for choosing to give the award to the Biology professor from UC Santa Cruz. ‘We found her work to be really relevant to the times today, especially with talk of de-extinction and with climate change killing off lots of species and the loss of genetic diversity,’ she explained, crediting Bio-Soc Treasurer Clifton Lewis with the suggestion of inviting Dr. Beth Shapiro to UCD.

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Speaking to the Tribune before her talk, Dr Shapiro described the reasoning behind her busy speaking tour ‘I think that communicating Science is so important, I actually started off in journalism, not in science…we need an educated public about the topics that are important like climate change and any way we can get there is good with me! If that means we can attract people to science by thinking we can bring mammoths back to life, [then] that’s good with me …and that’s why I do a lot of public speaking, [and] why I started to write popular science books.’ The plot of the original Michael Crichton version of Jurassic Park was based upon research done by one of her colleagues: Alan Wilson, drawing attention to how this research into genetics has also crept into modern culture.

Shapiro also touted her new book, ‘Wildish Life: Our long history of messing with animals’ which is set to be released next winter and will make the case for the safe and careful use of genetic editing in the conservation of agriculture.

But what about the mammoths? I hear you asking! Shapiro explained that ‘for every animal there is a different set of problems, both moral and practical, which hinders the prospect of redeveloping their population […] Once an animal is gone, it’s gone!’ On top of the technical difficulties of extracting live DNA from 5,000 year old remains, there are also moral issues which hinder the development of paleogenetics. Shapiro warns that ‘we are deciding the genetic fate of every animal that we interact with.’

While it seems unlikely that we will be able to reverse extinction, Shapiro revealed that her research is key in stopping the extinction of animals such as the black-footed ferret, an animal which experienced near permanent extinction culminating in captive breeding programmes to revitalise the population. Upon reintroduction to its previous environment, the careful progress made by the scientists was lost due to the ferrets catching plague from its prey, the prairie dog. Genetic editing using frozen tissue samples taken years previously could be the solution to this problem, claims Dr. Shapiro, highlighting the practical use of the technology within modern science.

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Dr. Shapiro even gave Bio-Soc members a sneak peek at some breaking research, revealing that one of her PhD students, had made a breakthrough while studying a 700,000 year old bone, discovering an entirely new species of animal which Shapiro described vividly as a ‘ancestral donkey-zebra thing’ to much laughter and amazement from the audience ‘This is one of the things I love about Ancient DNA’ Shapiro expanded, ‘it’s all about discovery!’

Dr. Shapiro spoke about how she got involved in her field of expertise, crediting Svanti Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute, ‘the father of paleogenetics’, who created the foundations of the field of Ancient DNA, for giving her the chance to build upon his research. Shapiro detailed how she hopes the new generations of scientists follow his example; not to just focus on their own area of expertise and research but to explore fields of science that are alien to them, ‘take bits and pieces from different fields of science to establish whole new areas of science.’

Closing her speech Shapiro gave her advice for budding new scientists, ‘We only have one opportunity to live everyday, so we may as well take that opportunity to do something we like […] we only get this one chance, so enjoy it!’

UCD Biological Society will be awarding the 2020 George Sigerson award in the coming months, to get in contact with the society; email them at Biological.society@ucd.ie.

 

Hugh Dooley – News Writer

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