Imagine: snow covers the land in a huge plain. Mountains rise in the distance, powerful winds carry cold air from the North Pole across the tundra, the ground itself freezes underfoot. Only the toughest creatures survive in this environment. A large beast roams your periphery. His height is twelve feet, his elephant body is covered with fur. Large ivory tusks protrude nine feet from his skull.
V woolly mammoth…
Are you standing in the distant past? Well, if one ambitious startup manages to achieve its goal, the woolly mammoth may return in the near future.
Colossal, founded by biologist George Church, aims to resurrect the woolly mammoth before the end of the decade. Using revolutionary modern technology, they hope to repopulate Siberian tundra mammoths by 2027.
How to resurrect an extinct woolly mammoth
Church is a geneticist at Harvard University, where he spearheaded preliminary work. Together with a team of other biologists and geneticists, they laid the foundation for the return of woolly. Following the recent infusion of funds from investors, they plan to continue their innovative and groundbreaking work.
It involves the use of a newly developed technology known as CRISPR — clustered regularly alternating short palindromic repeats. In short, it allows scientists to edit genomes. Using this tool, Church and his team are trying to recreate the woolly mammoth by manipulating the genome of the modern Asian elephant.
Since the Asiatic elephant and the woolly mammoth share a common ancestor that is six million years old, there is enough similarity between their genomes for one to evolve into the other. With genetic samples of woolly mammoths found well preserved in the ice, scientists have an excellent guide to getting started.
By modifying some aspects of the Asian elephant, they intend to create a creature more reminiscent of a woolly mammoth. It won’t technically be a perfect getaway, but rather a well-constructed simulacrum. They will combine thicker hair, add fat and other woolly mammoth traits to the elephant’s genome to get to the animal closest to the woolly mammoth.
In an interview with Guardian’s Ian Sample, Church said, “Not because we’re trying to trick someone, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to a mammoth that will enjoy time at -40 Celsius.”
Is it ethical to resurrect a woolly mammoth?
Some have expressed concern over news of the Colossal’s intention to bring back the long-extinct animal. Despite all the research and information gathered, much remains unknown about the woolly mammoth. Basically, this species became extinct more than ten thousand years ago as a result of the actions of human predators and climate warming. The last of them hobbled for several thousand years, isolated on islands in the Arctic Ocean, but became completely extinct about 4000 years ago.
As a result, there are plenty of riddles. No one knows exactly how woolly mammoths behaved, and while the specimens shed light on their biology, the picture remains incomplete.
Many scientists have voiced concerns over the past decade about the resurrection of extinct species. Ecosystems are built over hundreds of years, providing a balance between all the animal and plant species involved. Adding a new animal to the mix can be (and has) disastrous results. Just ask the dodo bird.
However, Church defends his position, arguing that the return of the woolly mammoth does indeed benefit the environment. Now the tundra is dominated by moss, whereas during the reign of the woolly mammoth it was a thriving pasture. Church claims that the woolly mammoth contributed to the management of its ecosystem through its feeding habits and fertilizing the land with its droppings.
Russian ecologists are already using a similar method, introducing large numbers of bison into the tundra in the hope that their population will turn the mossy tundra back into pasture.
However, others remain skeptical. Love Dalen, paleontologists working at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, told CNN: “There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the placement of mammoths will have any impact on climate change.”
However, there are still many obstacles before Church and his team actually give birth to a living woolly mammoth. They still need to collect eggs from female Asian elephants, which has never been possible before. Church then decided to design an artificial uterus rather than using surrogate elephant mothers, which is a daunting task in itself. Scientists have succeeded in creating a false womb that supports a lamb fetus for up to four weeks at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
Church and his team need one that can support a 200-pound fetus for up to two years.
So will we see the woolly mammoth again walking on the ground?
The question remains unanswered at this time. Too many scientific obstacles remain to be sure whether Church will succeed. And, of course, there are other obstacles from the government. Resurrecting a woolly mammoth by 2027 may sound flashy enough to interest investors with deep pockets, but it may be more difficult than Church admits.
What did woolly mammoths eat?
Despite their imposing size and formidable tusks, woolly mammoths actually ate exclusively grass. They were strictly herbivores.
Where did woolly mammoths live?
A woolly mammoth, adapted to freezing temperatures, flourished in the arctic tundra. However, after warming and predation reduced their numbers, the subgroup survived the remaining millennia on islands in the Arctic Ocean such as Wrangel Island.
Are there other animals facing extinction?
While none of these have actually been revived, advances in new technology continue to fuel debate over whether to bring back extinct species. Animals such as the wandering pigeon, thylacine (better known as the Tasmanian tiger) and the bison, a species of cattle, were presented as potential candidates.