‘Woolly mammoths could walk the Earth again’

Once upon a time: Early humans ate mammoths and used their tusks to make tools.

Scientists in Japan have made a “significant step” towards bringing the ancient species back from the dead using the DNA of a frozen mammoth. But is it the right thing to do?

Over 12,000 years ago, woolly mammoths roamed across a vast arctic tundra. At around 10 feet tall, they dominated the icy, grassy landscape. Their tusks alone could stretch to four metres long.

And soon they could be walking the Earth once more.

Scientists from Kindai University in Osaka say they have made a “significant step towards bringing mammoths back from the dead”.

The team took cells from the muscles of a mammoth named Yuka, who was discovered frozen in Siberian permafrost after more than 28,000 years.

When the DNA was injected into a mouse egg cell, the scientists were amazed to see “signs of biological activity”. This suggests that the dead DNA could one day be resurrected in a living mammal.

But the scientists are cautious. The next step, they say, is to move “forward to the stage of cell division.”

Woolly mammoths lived during the last ice age before they were wiped out by rising temperatures, evolving food supplies and human hunting 10,000 years ago.

In order to bring a woolly mammoth back to life, scientists would need to combine its DNA with a “host” species. A good candidate would be the Asian elephant, its closest surviving relative. This could pose a challenge in itself: Asian elephants are an endangered species.

Nevertheless, scientists from the US to Russia say they are within touching distance of resurrecting the mammoth.

Could we bring back other species too? Perhaps the most famous extinct animal of all is the dodo, hunted into extinction in the 1660s. Another more frightening candidate is a 12-foot-tall flightless bird called the moa.

One thing is certain: we won’t have a real-life Jurassic Park any time soon. DNA goes extinct after one million years, at which time the dinosaurs were long dead.

De-extinction does not always require complex experiments. The quagga, a type of zebra that went extinct in the 1880s, has been effectively brought back to life through selective breeding.

The possibilities are both “exhilarating and terrifying,” says Beth Shapiro from the University of California.

Lazar-rhinoceros

Should we bring back extinct species? Is it wrong for humans to manipulate nature to this extent? And when more than 20,000 living species are currently threatened with extinction, shouldn’t we focus our efforts on them? Wouldn’t it be a huge waste of money?

Not necessarily. Some scientists think that mammoths could help stop climate change. Besides, the genetic techniques could benefit animals like the white rhino by reintroducing diversity to tiny populations. As the natural world dies around us, could this be just what we need to reinvigorate it?

You Decide

  1. Should we bring back woolly mammoths?
  2. Which extinct animal would you most like to bring back from the dead?

Activities

  1. Find an example of an animal that humans drove to extinction. Find out as much as you can about the animal, its habitat, when it lived and how it died out.
  2. Write a letter to environmental authorities arguing for or against the de-extinction of woolly mammoths. Use persuasive language.

Some People Say...

“Extinction is the rule, survival is the exception.”

Carl Sagan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists in Japan say they have made a “significant step” towards resurrecting woolly mammoths. They extracted tissue from a frozen mammoth named Yuka and sequenced its DNA. They then implanted the nuclei from the cells into mouse egg cells. The scientists say the cells then began a biological process that precedes cell division.
What do we not know?
Whether we will ever be able to bring a true woolly mammoth back to life. It is a lot more likely that we could create a hybrid species of a mammoth and a surviving species of elephant. Another method of de-extinction is selective breeding, when animals with particular features are bred together until they closely resemble extinct species.

Word Watch

Vast
The mammoth steppe was a huge ecosystem covered in icy grass that stretched from modern-day Spain across Eurasia all the way to Canada.
Permafrost
Rock or soil that is frozen for more than two years. This terrain is most commonly found near the planet’s north and south poles.
Cell division
A single cell divides to form more complex organisms.
Ice age
A period when the Earth was very cold from around 2.58 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago.
10,000 years ago
One isolated colony of mammoths survived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea until 1650 BC — just 4,000 years ago.
US to Russia
The Japanese scientists are collaborating with a Russian lab. In 2017, scientists at Harvard University in the US said they would create a mammoth embryo in two years.
Selective breeding
When animals with particular features are bred together until they closely resemble extinct species. This, of course, does not literally resurrect the species.
Climate change
Permafrost in the Arctic contains heavy concentrations of greenhouse gases. Mammoths can help keep the gases frozen.

Subjects