Scientists have a bad reputation in horror and science fiction for trying to play God.
Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel, Frankenstein, popularized the concept of the ‘mad scientist’ through the titular Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who unleashes a monstrous figure — known simply as Creature — upon humanity.
In real life, scientists unleash long-lost or presumed dead creatures as well, though their reasons are decidedly less megalomaniacal than Dr. Frankenstein’s.
From ancient viruses to cloned beings, scientists are reviving entities once considered lost. And while these scientific endeavors aren’t as controversial as Frankenstein’s monster, they’ve still raised a few eyebrows.
Here are five times over the past 10 years when scientists brought back the living dead — and one animal that may reemerge in the future.
5. The Arctic rotifer
These microscopic multicellular organisms survived for thousands of years under the ice by entering into a frozen state known as “suspended animation.” Suspended animation allows the rotifer to avoid freezing and prevent cell death by shutting down the organism’s bodily functions.
Previously, scientists thought the rotifers could survive only for six to ten years in this frozen state. Now researchers have proven otherwise through radiocarbon dating, which allowed them to estimate the rotifer’s age.
Through subsequent analysis, scientists discovered the rotifer can survive slow cooling and freezing for a week, revealing insight into the creature’s unique body. They also found that cloned samples of the rotifer can “continuously reproduce” in a laboratory by parthenogenesis — reproduction without fertilization.
The prospect of resurfacing and cloning a living creature from the ice might seem like a science fiction movie gone wrong, but through studying suspended animation in the rotifer, we may better understand how suspended animation can keep other organisms — including humans — alive for longer than their normal lifespan.
4. Resurrected plants
Permafrost — ground that typically remains frozen year-round — covers roughly 65 percent of Russian territory. If you’re looking to find ancient organisms to bring back to life, the Siberian permafrost is a good place to start.
In 2012 a team of Russian scientists published a paper explaining how they revived whole, fertile plants from the late Pleistocene era, a time 32,000 years ago. The plants are whitish flowers native to eastern Siberia called Silene stenophylla. According to the researchers, the plants are “the most ancient, viable, multicellular, living organisms” on Earth.
The study team regenerated the plants from “immature fruit tissue” buried in ancient squirrel burrows nearly 40 meters under the surface of the permafrost. After thawing the frozen fruit tissues, scientists were able to bring them to flower and bear fruit, even generating viable seeds to continue the next generation of this ancient plant.
The discovery — and subsequent plant regeneration — gave scientists’ a clearer grasp on the permafrost’s role in preserving the “ancient gene pool.” By studying this ancient gene pool, scientists can better understand the microevolution of living organisms.
3. Ancient moss
Just two years after Russian scientists regenerated flowering plants from the Siberian permafrost, a team of British researchers attempted something similar in a different, but equally frosty part of the world: Antarctica.
The scientists uncovered 1,530-year-old moss, which remained frozen in the ice due to cryptobiosis or suspended animation, which occurs when a cell’s metabolic processes shut down. Organisms only enter cryptobiosis to save themselves from extremely harsh environments, such as frozen permafrost.
Even more fascinating: researchers managed to grow new moss on the ancient moss clumps, taking the ‘living dead’ to the next level.
But they weren’t just regenerating ancient moss for kicks. Moss can survive in the most adverse environments. Peter Convey, a research on the project from the British Antarctic Survey, explained at the time:
"What mosses do in the ecosystem is far more important than we would generally realise... understanding what controls their growth and distribution, particularly in a fast-changing part of the world such as the Antarctic Peninsula region, is therefore of much wider significance."
2. A deadly virus?
In 2017, researchers at the University of Alberta ignited controversy when they used synthetic biology to recreate the genome of the horsepox virus — a relative of the deadly smallpox virus — from mail-order DNA.
Horsepox isn’t known to harm humans, and scientists believe it’s likely been eradicated in nature. But what’s more worrisome is the possibility that such technology could fall into the wrong hands. After all, if horsepox can be recreated, what’s to stop someone from reviving smallpox — a highly contagious and often lethal virus?
"No question. If it's possible with horsepox, it's possible with smallpox," virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, said in a Science article on the topic.
(It’s worth noting: Smallpox, which was eradicated in 1977, is the only human virus to be eradicated through vaccination).
But scientists weigh these considerable risks alongside significant benefits. As a result of their genetic experiments, the researchers used the horsepox vaccine to serve as a vaccine for mice infected with poxvirus — a family of viruses that also includes smallpox.
The scientists’ synthetic DNA findings could potentially help us produce better vaccines as well as construct viruses needed to treat cancer.
1. The extinct ibex
Earlier this year, scientists made headlines when they cloned a black-footed ferret — the first endangered species in the US to undergo cloning.
But while it’s certainly admirable to try to save an endangered animal from extinction, scientists attempted something even more ambitious nearly twenty years ago: bring a dead species back from extinction.
In 2000, the last bucardo — also known as Pyrenean ibex or mountain goat — died after being crushed by a tree. Her name was Celia.
Scientists preserved Celia’s cells, hoping to clone the dead species by taking nuclei from her cells and implanting them in embryos in surrogate goat mothers. The researchers based this technique on the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep. But only one goat clone carried Celia’s cells to term.
The scientists successfully revived the extinct species, but only for ten minutes. The Celia clone passed away shortly after birth. The bucardo is the only species to become de-extinct — and also become extinct twice. Try wrapping your head around that.
In 2013, Spanish researchers received funding to test whether Celia’s cells were still viable, but made no plan to revive the bucardo from the dead — again.
Bonus: The woolly mammoth
The woolly mammoth endures in the popular imagination as a relic of the Ice Age — a symbol when cavemen roamed the icy tundra alongside mega-beasts.
Now, scientists want to bring that relic back to life — a decision that’s not without controversy.
Earlier in 2021, entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard geneticist George Church created the biotechnology company Collossal. The company’s aim: to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth using gene-editing technology or CRISPR.
But the very idea of de-extinction is somewhat misleading: Scientists say it’s not possible to really bring back an extinct species. Instead, scientists are planning to genetically modify an elephant to create a new synthetic organism resembling a woolly mammoth.
Scientists, in turn, would be creating new life itself — raising serious ethical concerns.
“If [this technology] genuinely does what they hope it's going to do, that will fundamentally alter the way that we as humans interact with the natural world,” Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist and fellow at the Natural History Museum in London, told Inverse earlier this year.
Other scientists have touted the benefits of “reviving” the woolly mammoth, suggesting that the mammoth’s function as a grazing animal could help convert icy tundra back into grasslands, helping store carbon, support biodiversity, and offset climate change.
It remains to be seen whether those potential benefits are outweighed by the considerable concerns. It’s possible that some experiments should be reserved solely for science fiction, lest real-life scientists suffer from the same ill-fated temptations as Frankenstein.