ROLLING STONE, June 2028
The Queen of Clades, Natasha Frei, wakes up, grabs her glasses, and takes in a report. It's packed with data and interactives and all manner of sims from her staff, but there's really only one thing she cares about: the Number. The Number is how far the 500 Project has reached in its single-minded pursuit of reversing all the human-caused animal extinctions of the past half-millennia — and the reason why it matters is because Natasha Frei is running out of time.
It's March 23rd, 2028, and the Number is nowhere near where Frei needs it to be. She had planned to reach 11 percent by now, but sequencing failures for the labrador duck and endogenous retroviruses wreaking havoc have meant that right now she's only at 8.4 percent. Some think that she's blindly optimistic, that she's been driving the 500 team too hard for too long, that she’s putting their funding at risk. That news would be bad enough, but there’s worse: some whisper that she’s a micromanager. That they'd be well beyond 10 percent by now if it weren't for Frei.
But maybe that's not a bad thing. Like her wards, Frei's something of a throwback to the past, an avatar of old-school command and control that has somehow emerged unscathed in our Age of Fragmentation. Micromanagement might not win popularity contests, but it does give the Project the kind of laser-like focus that more distributed teams can only dream of.
Frei doesn’t care about the whispers. All she wants to do is avoid wasting resources and talent on duplicating effort. If that means an authoritarian approach, so be it. One thing is clear though: Frei is committed to the 500 Project. "We're going to clean up our own mess," she says.
"Our mess" is the legacy of the past half-millennia of the Holocene epoch, where hunting and environmental change have caused an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 extinctions. You could make those numbers bigger or smaller by changing the time window, but the Project claims that going back only, say, a century is shirking our inherited responsibilities. And why 500 years? That’s the half-life of preserved DNA, which also explains why we shouldn't be expecting any dinosaurs. As they say, you can't clone from stone.
It started with Thylacinus cynocephalus. You'd know it as the Tasmanian wolf, a surprisingly large striped carnivorous marsupial — or at least, you would if you lived in the 1930s before it became extinct. We thought we'd never see it again, but a century later the thylacine was successfully revived and restored to the Tasmanian wilderness, and the researchers involved were covered in glory.
Frei was one of them. She quickly became a leading light in the de-extinction community, founding the 500 Project. She set up partnerships with the Beijing Genomics Institute, capable of sequencing a megagenome per hour; the Frozen Zoo in San Diego; and the Svalbard and Sussex Seedbanks. When Frei went toe-to-toe against a US consortium intent on patenting the genomes of revived species, she firmly established herself in the public eye. She pursued them right up to the US Supreme Court and won, by ensuring that the genomes would remain in the public domain. To top it off, she managed to get a funding increase from the National Science Foundation. She is a woman who gets things done.
The 500 Project has a budget in the tens of billions, fuelled by a mix of government contributions and direct subscriptions. It's not the only de-extinction programme out there — others are more focused on backcrossing from extant genes in living animals to reach extinct species — but it's the biggest. After the Siberian debacle where amateurs released revived species back into the wild unprepared, Frei is also seen as the responsible choice. Relatively speaking.
She's taking a rare physical visit to the 500 facilities in Minnesota today. On the car over, she fires off responses to the cloud of journalists following her. For instance:
"Isn't the 500 Project taking resources away from other conservation efforts? Won't people ignore endangered species if they think you can just revive them once they’re extinct?"
Frei sighs. "They always ask the same questions," she tells me.
She murmurs a quick reply: "Reviving a species is much more expensive than conserving it, so we've always made it clear that we should be spending more on all conservation efforts. But we think the 500 Project highlights the importance and joy that revived species can bring, and that helps everyone in the conservation community."
She doesn't mention the spin-offs. Maybe she's tired. Two years ago, the 500 Project worked out how to reliably make induced pluripotent stem cells — adult cells reprogrammed to be able to differentiate into specialised cells — from fibroblast cell cultures. They use them to create germ cells for the de-extinction process, but the same technique can also be used to help increase genetic variability among highly endangered species.
Sometimes the help travels the other way: cellular reprogramming and phenotypic simulation helped the 500 Project work out optimal surrogate chains, and improvements in their captive breeding programmes have reduced deaths in revived species when they're released into the environment. It's a tough world out there for newly de-extinct species that don't have mothers to teach them how to behave.
As soon as her car arrives at the facility, Frei strides in, still murmuring answers to journalists. She already knows the scientists here are struggling with endogenous retroviruses that are hiding within the so-called non-coding regions of the genome. They're a knotty problem — they can pop out and become exogenous, becoming harmful to nearby genetic species. The viruses have made governments jumpy to the point that new regulations have been introduced, reducing the Number's pace even further.
In the conference room, voices are raised. Professor Hwang says that more work needs to be done on identifying and neutering the viruses; Professor Church fires back, replying that they're an essential part of the genome, and if they're removed, we don’t know what might happen. Frei considers the arguments and tells Hwang that he has four weeks, after which she's going to pressure the WHO to provide some support.
As soon as she's in, she's out, her eyes darting across her glasses. There's a big announcement coming soon: after many false starts, a live woolly mammoth is about to be revealed to the world — a notable exception to the ‘500 years’ rule. It's hard to think of a more iconic species, and it’s sure to provide a big boost to fundraising, but Frei has already budgeted the extra funds in and begun thinking ahead to the next problem: where to put them. Not every revived species is as fortunate as the thylacine, which had an ecosystem and community ready and waiting to accept it. The mammoths will need plenty of space to roam around in, and she's not sure the Canadians will give her enough.
She drums her fingers on the car window, and looks at a sim of one of the proposed Ascension biomes again. It seems fantastical, a custom-made biosphere in a hollowed-out asteroid, not even remotely possible for the next 30 years, but then again, people felt the same way about de-extinction until the thylacine appeared. "We'll see if they can get the ecosystems right." She fires a series of questions to an expert at Centre national d'études spatiales, and frowns at the reply. "I wouldn't put it past them to start messing about with the gravity because they think it'd be more fun, or something."
Here's another problem: while the US has become more receptive to the 500 Project, seeing how it might help repair the environment in the Great Plains, the EU has been distinctly chilly. Frei thinks that it's because the Europeans have forgotten what wilderness looks like — the whole continent has been domesticated for centuries. "They all think that the countryside is natural, so they can't imagine where they'd put any of our restored species."
It's a long drive back to the station. Before having a nap, Frei takes one last look through her glasses, leaping from country to country to see the research progress. In Arizona, she pauses and jumps in, scrutinising a newborn auroch, the ancestor to the domestic cattle. It's unsteady on its feet, falls over. The scientists look on with concern, ready to rush in. It gets back up and takes another step. She smiles. Briefly. Then moves on.