Jurassic Park has nothing on three scientists who have decided to reassemble genes from woolly mammoths and resurrect them once again after having been extinct for more than 10,000 years.
What could go wrong, you may well ask, since the Jurassic Park thing turned out so well.
We may soon find out, as $15 million has already been pledged to the effort to bring this species back from extinction with the help of gene editing.
After the passage of ten millennia, scientists have created a start-up, dubbed named “Colossal,” which announced on Tuesday that funding has now been secured which may result in thousands of woolly mammoths roaming the vast plains and steppes of Siberia.
George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told interviewers from the New York Times “This is a major milestone for us. It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”
Long the domain of theoretical scientists who could only postulate how something like this may be possible, this gargantuan experiment may now become a reality as Colossal has taken many of the necessary primary steps needed that would result in a resurrection of the beloved extinct mammal using the gene-editing technology called CRISPR.
Since woolly mammoths and Asian elephants — which of course still exist in the wild, although they are threatened — share a common ancestor which lived six million years ago, Church says he believes that he could rewrite the elephants’ DNA to produce an animal which is for all intents and purposes a mammoth using CRISPR.
This genetic technology is a type copy-and-paste tool for the genetic code of all living things.
“A cold-resistant elephant”
Church told The Guardian “Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth.
“Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40 Celsius,” he elaborated.
Church and his team compared the genomes from surviving fragments of DNA from woolly mammoths to those of modern elephants and quickly noted the most major differences. After simply altering certain genes to produce denser hair and a thicker layer of fat, they hope to create an animal with characteristics that are sufficiently mammoth-like.
First, he says, they must create an artificial mammoth uterus which is already lined with stem-cell-derived tissue in order to nourish the mammoth fetus. They state that they are optimistic that they will be able to produce an elephant-mammoth hybrid animal within the next few years.
Within just the next decade they hope to be able to create an animal that is entirely a wooly mammoth genetically.
Questioning the ramifications
Anyone who has read or even seen the movie Jurassic Park, however, will quickly ask why this might need to be done, and what the eventual ramifications will certainly be. Surely any living thing is almost impossible to control in some situations and the effect on the environment would almost have to be a major one.
The scientists at Colossal maintain that their project is not just a scientific tour de force; the reintroduction of woolly mammoths might even benefit the arctic environment by reducing moss and increasing grassland there, according to a report from the New York Times.
Those who are opposed to the idea reply to that by saying that there surely are different ways of tacking that issue other than reconstituting gigantic grassland behemoths which require enormous amounts of fodder.
Love Dalén, a paleogeneticist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, told CNN “There’s absolutely nothing that says that putting mammoths out there will have any, any effect on climate change whatsoever.”
Even if this showstopper of a genetic feat can technically become a reality, some scientists are urging a step back, long before any non-reversible event might take place that would endanger the environment — or even, possibly, human beings.
Is this even ethical?
It’s not a question of if science will allow for such engineering, but if it is ethical to do it at all.
Naturally, experts do know quite a bit about the giant animals from specimens that have been found in permafrost, but there is a great deal they cannot know regarding their biology and, especially, their behavior.
The team from Colossal still has some major steps they must undergo before any adorable, but huge, baby woolly mammoths are thundering around the Siberian tundra. This includes the creation of an artificial uterus that can nurture a 200-pound mammoth fetus for its normal gestation period — which takes two years.
It may take as much as six years before mature animals are allowed to forage across Siberia — and before science enters another era of resurrecting large mammals to roam the earth once more.