Science Scope

Can ancient DNA from eggshells be used to resurrect an extinct bird?

Can ancient DNA from eggshells be used to resurrect an extinct bird?

Posting in Food

Australian researchers extracted DNA from a 19,000-year-old emu eggshell as well as other extinct birds, shedding light on how the avian creatures lived and died.

Well the short answer is no — the idea of resurrecting an extinct bird is still stuff of science fiction. However, Australian researchers might be one step closer, after announcing an incredible feat: They isolated DNA from a 19,000-year-old emu eggshell, unveiling some mysterious clues about the extinct emus' world. With DNA that old, recovering anything at all is impressive.

The Aussies aren't alone in their egg hunt. In fact, other researchers tried extracting DNA from eggshells, by using the technique used to extract calcium carbonate from bones. That's where they fell short.

This time, the scientists successfully isolated ancient DNA from eggshells, by getting into the shell's calcium carbonate matrix and crushing it into power. Then the researchers used standard lab chemicals and forensic techniques to amplify the DNA.

Now they have less than one percent of an extinct bird's genome. But Michael Bunce of Murdoch University in Perth didn't stop at emu eggshells. New Scientist reports, by mining 13 places around Australia, the researchers isolated the mitochondrial DNA from birds such as the giant moa of New Zealand, thunderbirds, and elephant birds of Madagascar.

The elephant bird began to disappear 1,000 years ago. Not only did the birds look like gigantic ostriches, the BBC says in food terms, an elephant bird's egg could have served 30 omelettes.

Even though humans began migrating to Madagascar around the same time the elephant bird began to die out, "there's no evidence that the bird was hunted by humans."

Piecing together bits of evolutionary history could help scientists crack an entire extinct bird's genome and more. Researchers hope to use this ancient DNA to learn about how the birds ate, their physiology, and why on earth they went extinct.

Unfortunately Jurassic Park fans are in for a disappointment. For those of you who are stubborn to believe that a resurrection isn't coming soon, just take Oskam's word for it:

"As with all ancient DNA, the DNA we isolated from eggshell is very fragmented." It will be possible to sequence extinct genomes from fossil eggshell, [Oskam] said, "but it is a huge leap to imagine we can clone an extinct species."

Image Top: Paul Rigby/Centre of Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis (CMCA) (via New Scientist)

Image Bottom: PhysOrg.com

Share this

Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure