Be afraid. Be very afraid.
A team of scientists from Harvard believe they’re on track to resurrect a live woolly mammoth within two years.
Genetics professor George Church and his team are working to combine traits of the endangered Asian elephant with its hairier ancestors. Because it will be a hybrid, the Harvard team won’t bring back an exact replica of the giant pachyderms that roamed much of the globe 4,000 years ago.
But the goal of the project focuses on expressing genes that were unique to the woolly mammoth. Revive & Restore, an organization working with Church’s team, stated that the three main adaptions that they’re currently concentrating on are the fat reserves mammoths had under their skin, the creatures’ ability to circulate blood oxygen at low temperatures and their distinctive hairy coats.
These would all be important traits for the animal to have because Church wants to reintroduce the species back into the wild. Mammoths in tundra regions used to distribute nutrients and ensure that trees didn’t grow too tall, thereby increasing the growth of grasslands. Revive & Restore stated that these grasslands are necessary to keep permafrost from melting, an issue that is contributing to climate change.
To do all of this, Church and his team rely on a powerful genetic engineering technology called CRISPR-Cas9. As yourgenome.org points out, CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to alter or simply remove certain parts of a DNA strand.
In other words, researchers are quickly learning how to rebuild animals from the ground up.
While this specific experiment would be an enormous step forward for genetic research, don’t get too excited about the prospect of buying woolly mammoth meat in the near future. The Guardian reports that Church wants to grow this elephant-mammoth hybrid in an artificial womb, which is something that’s never been done on this scale before. The team is currently experimenting with how mice react to this kind of environment to see if it’s suitable for bigger beasts.
There’s also an ethical dilemma here. Like other elephants, woolly mammoths were social, usually moving in herds. There’s no guarantee that this hybrid animal would fit in with any living elephant pack.
On top of that, past experiments of this sort haven’t always gone as planned. One attempt to recreate a Pyrenean ibex ended with the test subject suffocating minutes after birth.
Regardless, these ethical issues won’t come to a head for a while. Church stated that he’s confident his team can create an embryo of the mammoth-elephant hybrid within the next couple of years. That would be a huge accomplishment by itself, but actually birthing a the creature would still require the team to design and build the proposed artificial womb.
Only time will tell if they can pull it off.