Torill Kornfeldt explores the sci-fi of reviving species

When it comes to reviving extinct species, Skolar Award keynote speaker Torill Kornfeldt out-nerds you in the blink of an eye. Her Slush keynote explores the science of bringing species back from the dead with genetic technology.

Think of something you’re very excited about: a new job, a future vacation, a bag of candy. Then multiply that excitement by ten. That’s how science journalist and author Torill Kornfeldt initially felt when she heard researchers were looking into reviving the poster child of extinct species, the mammoth.

“It awoke my inner 10-year-old. I was like wow! A mammoth! Oh my God!”, Kornfeldt says. She soon grew out of the initial reaction and dug into the subject of reviving extinct species from a more nuanced point of view.

The end result was a Swedish non-fiction book that loosely translates as “The Return of the Mammoth: The Extinct Species’ Second Chance”. It explores the science and ethics of reviving extinct species with the help of new genetic technology. The book has now been published in Finnish as well.

Bringing ancient species back from the dead with the use of technology sounds a bit like sci-fi. What’s the gist of it all?

“I won’t out-nerd you”, Kornfeldt begins and promptly out-nerds me as she explains the different levels of recreating extinct species. It all boils down to cloning live cells and putting tiny pieces of dna together digitally.

What kind of world do we want to live in?

Kornfeldt explains that there probably won’t be mammoths or dinosaurs walking among us in the future. The closest things scientists can get to right now are a gene edited elephant that resembles a mammoth and a chicken-sized velociraptor.

However, there are possibilities to use advanced technology to save species that are currently on the brink of extinction. That’s one of the themes Torill Kornfeldt will touch on in her keynote speech at the Skolar Award finals at Slush.

“For example there are only three northern white rhinos left. They’re protected by armed guards at all times because of the risk of poaching. The three surviving rhinos are males and can’t produce offspring, so from a biological point of view they’re already extinct”, Kornfeldt explains.

With cell cloning you could restart the species, though. That forces us to question what is natural and what kind of world we want to live in. Is it a world where a northern white rhino (or some other endangered species) doesn’t exist at all, or a world where it exists but is based on cloning and genetic technology?

Tackling species loss and reviving giant sloths

This year Slush calls for solvers to tackle the biggest and most wicked global problems of our time. The event will even be opened by Al Gore, past Vice President of the United States and vocal environmentalist.

As a former biologist Torill Kornfeldt has no difficulty coming up with a massive challenge that should and could be solved with science and research. Although it would be tempting to say climate change, she opts for something she finds even more worrying.

“There’s been some research indicating that the problem with species loss is actually even more alarming than climate change. One specific problem that should be solved is the loss of insect species. They might seem insignificant, but if we lose insects, nothing in nature functions”, she says.

There’s only one thing left to ask. Which extinct species would Torill Kornfeldt revive if given the chance? The 10-year-old raises her head enthusiastically.

“The giant sloth! It used to live in South America and was related to the sloth, but it’s huge, the size of a polar bear. I’d love to see one of those.”

Catch Torill Kornfeldt’s keynote speech at the Skolar Award finals! The event takes place on the Central Stage at Messukeskus on 1.12. from 13:30 onwards.

Text: Kristiina Markkanen