The woolly mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago, likely due to climate change and hunting by humans. However, now they might be coming back, thanks to pioneering research led by Prof George Church of Harvard University.
Church claims that his team is two years away from creating a hybrid embryo fusing mammoth DNA with Asian elephants DNA. They are specifically looking to introduce traits associated with cold environments such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood.
The mammoth which is more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits sometimes referred to as a “mammophant” will be created using a modern gene editing technique derived from bacteria. The technique called CRISPR and it allows DNA to be “cut and pasted” at precise points.
The team is using mammoth DNA from specimens that have been frozen over millennia in Siberian ice. They have currently taken 45 different sections of the mammoth DNA and inserted them into the elephant genome.
Currently, researchers are still trying to evaluate the impact that the gene editing has had on the DNA and trying to get an embryo to grow in the lab.
The researchers want the hybrid animal to grow in the lab because as Church explained: “It would be unreasonable to put female reproduction at risk in an endangered species.” Currently, they can grow a mouse in an artificial womb for 10 days (halfway through its gestation period). They do not expect to be able to grow a mammoth in a lab within the next decade, so don’t start booking mammoth viewing trips just yet.
At this point, you may be asking “WHY? Why would you even want to create a mammoth?”
Now the mad scientist in me, the one who would really want to run a Jurassic park would answer “Because we can…mu hahaha ha” *thunder and lightning crash outside. However, there are actually some good reasons to resurrect woolly mammoths.
Firstly if we can bring back woolly mammoths then potentially we can bring back a host of other animals that human activity has caused to go extinct.
Secondly woolly mammoths my help to combat climate change. By moving around in the arctic tundra they punch through the snow allowing cold air to reach the permafrost underneath stopping it melting. This means that the greenhouse gasses, mostly carbon dioxide and methane, that are trapped in the permafrost will stay trapped there rather than being released. The mammoths also knock down trees during the summer which help the grass to grow preventing erosion. Trees in the tundra mean the tundra gets warmer as sunlight is absorbed.
Thirdly it could help to preserve the Asian elephant which is currently in danger of extinction, albeit it a slightly more woolly form.
Unsurprisingly there are objections to resurrecting the wooly mammoth Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, said: “The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue – the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”
Personally, I can’t wait to herds of mammoths roaming the tundra so I’ll be keeping an eye out for developments over the next 10 years.