Telephones were a new invention, the Model T Ford was selling briskly, and William Howard Taft was U.S. president the last time anyone might have smelled a Hibiscadelphus wilderianus tree blooming in the wild. A distant cousin of Hawaii’s famous hibiscus flowers, the tree was native to the southern slope of Mount Haleakala, on the island of Maui. It’s likely that H. wilderianus went extinct between 1910 and 1913, judging from reported sightings of it dying along with other tree species that ranchers had slashed to clear space for cattle.
More than a century later, a group of scientists would wonder whether extinction was truly the end of the species’ story. What if this plant no longer seen in the wild—found only between dry pages in an archive—could be brought back to life, at least partially?
“We were sitting around and thinking, What if we could do Jurassic Park?” says Christina Agapakis, the creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based biotech company. “It was this sort of dreamy conversation, and we thought maybe we could.”