Mammoths one step closer to resurrection
Advances in genetic science have allowed researchers to create living mammoth genes for the first time. Is so-called ‘de-extinction’ a legitimate goal for scientists to pursue?
In northern Siberia, reindeer, moose, bison and musk ox roam the grassy plains of Pleistocene Park. It was founded as part of a scientific attempt to recreate the diverse ecosystems of the Pleistocene epoch, at the dawn of human evolution. Now it has been identified as a potential home for one more species: the woolly mammoth.
Over the last few years, de-extinction has moved beyond the province of fantasies of Jurassic Park and become a genuine scientific possibility. In a laboratory at Harvard University in the United States, genetics professor George Church has created living mammoth genes for the first time in 3,600 years.
By comparing the DNA of mammoths and Asian elephants, which share a common ancestor, Church and his team were able to identify some of the ‘cold-resistant’ genes in the ice-age species. These control things like the mammoth’s thick, woolly hair, smaller ears and insulating layers of fat. By using new CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’) technology which can ‘edit’ DNA, the scientists inserted 14 mammoth genes into the elephant DNA and found that the genes behaved ‘normally’.
Although Church warns there is ‘more work to do’, the experiments could eventually help to resurrect the woolly mammoth. If not, it could at least create an elephant hybrid which looks and acts in a similar way, and can survive colder temperatures.
Church is not the only one who is working on the de-extinction process. Combined efforts around the world could see the species recreated in ‘decades’. But as the science progresses, the researchers themselves are questioning whether or not they should.
‘What is the message?’ asks DNA scientist Alex Greenwood. ‘We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we’ll just clone things back?’ Besides the familiar qualms genetic science raises about ‘playing God’, it is also a dangerous distraction from more valuable research. The same resources and technology could help to prevent genetic diseases in humans, or even to save the 22,000 species currently at risk of extinction.
‘There is a part of me, the child or boy in me, that would love to see these majestic creatures walk across the permafrost once again,’ says another de-extinction scientist, Hendrik Poinar. Besides, they could be used for the greater good. Asian elephants are an endangered species, and genetically modifying them to live in cold weather could help them to survive. There is even an argument that re-introducing mammoths could help to fight climate change. The science has wonderful possibilities; why limit ourselves to maintaining the status quo?
- If you had the chance to bring back a woolly mammoth, would you do it?
- Do scientists have a duty to focus on more ‘important’ research than de-extinction?
- Draw a picture of a woolly mammoth and label some of the features which helped them to survive in the freezing temperatures of the Ice Age.
- Research some of the latest developments in genetic science and write a summary of three key problems they could solve.
Some People Say...
“Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.”George Bernard Shaw
What do you think?
Q & A
- Great! When can I get my pet mammoth?
- Well, there’s a long way to go yet. Even if scientists were able to replicate the mammoth DNA exactly, and even if the moral implications were overcome, they would have to figure out how to grow them. They could plant the embryo in an elephant womb, but not much is known about elephant gestation, and even less about the effects using a surrogate from another species. Professor Church suggests artificial wombs, but we don’t know much about those either.
- Would a different animal be easier?
- Maybe. More recently extinct animals, like the passenger pigeon, are also candidates for de-extinction. Scientists at the Long Now Foundation are working on bringing back the birds, which were once the most abundant in North America.
- Pleistocene epoch
- This era lasted from around 2.5m to 11,700 years ago. During that time, Earth saw the end of its last ice age, the expansion of the human race, the extinction of several species and a diverse ecosystem which stretched from France to Canada, and from the Arctic to China.
- 3,600 years
- Although most mammoths died out 10,000 years ago, a small population of 500-1,000 mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 1650BC.
- The ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’ system is currently one of the fastest and safest genetic editing techniques. CRISPR are clusters of DNA in bacteria which are able to identify and cut genes. You can learn more about how that works in the ‘become an expert’ section.
- Climate change
- In theory, large beasts which trample down snow help to keep soil temperatures low and prevent the release of greenhouse gases. In this way, the mammoths may be able prevent ice from melting.