'Bring Back The King'

By Helen Pilcher

Book Review by Susan MacDougall

Author Helen Pilcher is uniquely qualified to explain the cutting-edge science that makes the resurrection of extinct animals a very real possibility, while acknowledging the serious and humorous aspects of giving a deceased animal a second chance to live.

If you could bring back to life a person or animal, what would you choose? Pilcher highlights her own choices from eras gone, including the King of the Dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex, and the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley.

From dinosaurs to dodos and Neanderthals, BRING BACK THE KING reveals how the burgeoning field of DNA science is being used to help resurrect individual animals and entire species from their stony graves. Pilcher describes current initiatives and future plans to restore deceased animals, and uses both science and willful irreverence to assess the ramifications of how these genetic Lazaruses might fare in their brave new world.


EIN book reviewer Susan MacDougall explores this fascinating concept featured in this book...

Susan MacDougall's review once again proving that EIN keeps a watch out for ELVIS featuring in nearly every serious and not-so-serious publication!

Bring back the King: the new science of de-extinction, by Helen Pilcher. Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2016. 280 pp. Bibliography, index.

Genetic engineering is a hot topic now.

Would you want a Tyrannosaurus rex (T-rex) roaming the streets? Or a woolly mammoth?  Would you want to meet Elvis Presley again? Is it feasible, possible, or desirable to bring them back? What about the habitat and food sources for any recreated ancient animals?

Helen Pilcher is well qualified to explain and discuss these issues. She is a cell biologist, science journalist and comedian, as well as an Elvis fan. Bring back the King discusses de-extinction – the science involved in resurrecting extinct species. Pilcher also addresses the conservation of, and assisted reproduction for, endangered species to keep them from extinction. There have been at least five mass extinctions in the history of the Earth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are now in the midst of a sixth mass extermination, mainly brought about by human beings.

Bring back the King has chapters on various creatures Pilcher has selected as being possible candidates for de-extinction. They are: King of the Dinosaurs (Tyrannosaurus rex), King of the Cavemen (Neanderthals), King of the Ice Age (woolly mammoth), King of the Birds (dodo), King of Down Under (thylacine/Tasmanian tiger), and King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Elvis Presley). Subsequent chapters cover practical, moral and ethical issues, progress to date and prospects for the future. Pilcher also writes about other extinct and nearly extinct animals.


Jurassic Park
The idea of recreating long-gone creatures obviously intrigues people. In 1980 entomologist George Poinar discovered a fly trapped in amber with its DNA intact. His paper published in the journal Science attracted attention, and he joined the Extinct DNA Study Group.  The Group speculated on de-extincting dinosaurs.  Poinar was visited by a certain Michael Crichton, who asked about bringing back life forms in amber. Crichton used the scientific information they discussed as a basis for his novel Jurassic Park, published in 1990. This, in turn, was made into a very successful movie in 1993. Poinar is acknowledged in the back of the novel.

Candidates for De-extinction
Dinosaurs became extinct as a result of an asteroid strike. T-rex was not a slow, bumbling creature but a successful predator with rudimentary feathers rather than scales. The big obstacle to bringing dinosaurs back is finding DNA, which deteriorates over time.

Neanderthals disappeared 40,000 years ago. Judging from analysis of the shape of their skulls, they were no grunting savages.  They had language and tools, were capable of camaraderie, compassion and deep social bonds. They cared for their sick community members. It’s possible to make a Neanderthal with today’s knowledge. However, DNA tests show that homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals and that our DNA contains about 3% Neanderthal DNA. We have their genetic heritage within us, so there’s no need to bring them back!

The woolly mammoth disappeared about 10,000 years ago, possibly partly due to human hunting and climate change. They had ecological value. As vegetarians, they mowed the grass, fertilized the soil, and kept trees from overcrowding by trampling saplings, which resulted in fertile soil and diverse plant life. After they were gone, the land became unproductive mossy tundra.

The dodo was a large flightless pigeon that lived in Mauritius. It had no natural predators until Dutch ships arrived in 1598. Dodos were easy to kill and eat, although they apparently didn’t taste too good. The settlers wrecked their habitat by felling trees for sugar plantations. They flooded the island with rats, monkeys, pigs and goats. The dodo’s nests were destroyed and eggs and chicks predated. The search for dodo DNA goes on. Without its genome, there’s no hope of bringing it back. Truly “as dead as a dodo”, as Pilcher says.

The last thylacine died in Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, in 1936 through neglect, starvation and dehydration. Its body was thrown out with the trash. The population was against thylacines because they were wrongly thought to kill sheep and children. A bounty was put on their heads and they were slaughtered in their thousands. Some DNA exists in the form of a thylacine pup pickled in a jar.

While they don’t have a chapter devoted to them, these creatures are also discussed: the gastric-brooding frog (which was wiped out by chytrid fungus), the African clawed frog, the Yangtze River dolphin (habitat destroyed), and the passenger pigeon (shot out of existence by hunters).


Bring back Elvis
The human race isn’t extinct, Elvis isn’t extinct. He’s just dead. So why the chapter on Elvis among chapters on extinct animals? It’s partly that Elvis fans may be interested in the idea of bringing Elvis back to life.  In fact, there’s a web site called “Americans for Cloning Elvis” where you can join and sign a petition.  It has, as its counterpart, “Americans for Cloning Dead Celebrities”, where you can nominate which celebrity you want brought back. Actually, human reproductive cloning is widely banned for legal, ethical and social reasons.

But Elvis is also an example of the issues around trying to clone an individual. While DNA produces a living being with exactly the same genes, it won’t create an exact replica of a specific person.  Studies have been done on identical twins that prove the point.

Let’s start with the cloning process:
1) Find a source of Elvis’s DNA (probably a lock of hair)
2) decode his genome (complete set of DNA, including all of its genes)
3) edit the parts of Elvis’s genome that were unique to him into a regular human cell
4) transfer the cell into a human egg that has had its own DNA-containing nucleus removed
5) let the egg develop into an early-stage embryo in a test-tube or petri dish
6) implant the embryo into the womb of a surrogate mother.

The resulting baby would effectively be Elvis’s identical twin(!). However, this doesn’t mean that he is Elvis – or another Jesse Garon Presley. Pilcher calls him “GElvis” (Genetically engineered Elvis). Much has been said about “nature versus nurture”. In fact it’s more complicated than that. It’s environment, upbringing and epigenetics, ie, changes that affect the way genes work without altering the sequence of the DNA itself. So identical twins with identical DNA are not the same epigenetically. They do have the same genes but the way those genes are switched on and off is different.

What that means is that GElvis might not become a singer or entertainer or lead the same life. Pilcher points out that with the ever-increasing number of Elvis impersonators we don’t need GElvis. The real Elvis may not be with us physically and never can be again, but he’s still with us in spirit.



What animal would you de-extinct?
Actually, we aren’t limited to bringing back one extinct animal, but we should go slowly to start with. It will be experimental. There must be the right ecosystem and conditions for recreated animals to return to. There is also the issue of how they can be taught survival skills, such as how to recognize food, forage or hunt for it.

Scientists are preparing for the time when the technology is ready to go ahead with de-extinction. In northern-eastern Siberia, a scientist called Zimov is trying to recreate the woolly mammoth’s original ecosystem in a nature reserve called Pleistocene Park. Previously, cloning relied on collecting eggs and semen, which was often problematic (elephants being a prime example). The discovery that DNA could be extracted from skin was a significant breakthrough. Scientists have been collecting skin samples from rare and endangered animals for over 40 years, ready for the day when they will come in useful. The collection, called the Frozen Zoo, has more than 70,000 specimens from over 700 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.

When the time comes, it would be interesting to have a live T-rex to study, but too dangerous to have around. Pilcher’s preferred candidate is the northern white rhino.  It’s not actually extinct: there are now only two left on Earth, and they are not in a physical state to reproduce.

Final Thoughts
You couldn’t call this light reading.  There are various concepts to come to grips with. Although the techniques are described within the text, it would be useful to have a glossary of terms as an appendix for easy reference. However, Pilcher makes it interesting with her style and touches of humour. It’s “science for fun” for adults. Bring Back The King is a fact-packed, educational book, well worth the read.


Review by Susan MacDougall.
-Copyright EIN November 2018 - DO NOT COPY -
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

Comment on this review

Check out an interesting interview with author Helen Pilcher here on YouTube - She talks about cloning Elvis Presley 12 minutes in to the interview

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