W hen Jurassic Park captured audiences’ imaginations back in 1993, the prospect of resurrecting long dead species seemed an impossible fantasy. You’re still unlikely to be chasing velociraptors away from your vegetable patch any time soon, but we could see woolly mammoths make a comeback… of sorts.
The discovery of a well-preserved woolly mammoth specimen back in 2014 raised the possibility of creating a clone of the long extinct behemoth, a prospect beleaguered by ethical concerns. The Harvard team leading the de-extinction effort is now aiming to make an elephant-mammoth hybrid, and announced this week that a ‘mammophant’ embryo could be created within two years.
Using the gene-editing tool Crispr, the team is already making ‘edits’ to the genome of individual Asian elephant cells, while also evaluating which alterations were necessary for woolly mammoths to withstand the cold. “We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected,” said team leader George Church.
The project is still a long way off of creating a living mammophant, but birthing a hybrid animal could be achieved via an artificial womb, bypassing ethical concerns about experimenting on elephant surrogates and forcing them into difficult pregnancies. In fact, genetic editing could be good news for Asian elephants: one of the aims of the project is to produce an alternative future for the endangered species.
The other aim is perhaps more surprising: to help combat climate change. The mammophants could keep the tundra permafrost from melting, preventing the release of greenhouse gasses trapped underneath. “They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Professor Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
As a report in Nature Climate Change this week outlined the extent to which global warming is threatening endangered species, it would be a strange turn of event for mammoths to return from the dead to help save the environment. Perhaps Jeff Goldblum was right: “Life, uh, finds a way.”