Can we bring back the woolly mammoth?


The team of scientists led by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, will use genetic engineering to develop a cold-resistant elephant or an ‘Arctic elephant’. Several news reports have pointed out that the company has received $15 million in initial funding.

The team has selected over 50 traits that will enhance the cold-resistant ability of an Asian elephant. These include shaggy coats, smaller ears, cold-adapted forms of haemoglobin and excess adipose tissue production.

The idea is to use these genes and with the help of CRISPR technology insert them into the Asian elephant’s genome. The team will then create an embryo that carries the traits of a woolly mammoth.

The embryo will be implanted into a surrogate African elephant. The gestation in the elephant’s womb will take place for around 18-22 months and a hybrid ‘Arctic elephant’ will be born.

But why a woolly mammoth and why now?

Colossal mentions on its website that one of the core goals for reviving the mammoth is to revert the now-overshrubbed forests into natural arctic grasslands, which will help with carbon emissions.

The tundra, which is now a mossy forest, used to be a grassland and the team said that bringing back the mammoths could help bring back the steppe (unforested grassland) ecosystem and help in “reversing the rapid warming of the climate”.

They said that grazing mammoths will help re-establish the grassland ecosystem and prevent the thawing and release of greenhouse gases that are now trapped in the arctic permafrost.

Dr George Church told the that for carbon sequestration – preserving the methane from being released and bringing new carbon dioxide into the frozen soil – models have shown that about 100 ‘Arctic elephants’ would be needed.

“We would need an area of somewhere between one and three million square kilometre at first to have an impact. But considering there are about 20 million square kilometre of Arctic, that’s a small fraction,” he added.

When will an ‘Arctic elephant’ be born?

Ben Lamm, the founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences, told reporters that one can see the first generation of ‘Arctic elephant’ calves in four to six years. “Our goal is a little over a decade before we get full reintroduction,” he added.

Lamm said that the short-term plan includes developing veterinary reproductive technologies for endangered species in particular, and for endangered environments and ecosystems.

“Look at this like the Apollo programme. When humankind went to the moon, we actually developed a lot of great technologies, including technologies that are allowing us to have this conversation today. And so we think there’s a lot of applications of the technologies that will come out of these synthetic wombs, multiplex editing which can be used for protecting critically endangered species, in agriculture, and for veterinary use,” he added.

Ethical questions

Professor Adrian M Lister from the Division of Vertebrates and Anthropology at Natural History Museum London told the that this plan raises many ethical questions, “Especially since we are talking about a highly intelligent, social animal, not a lab animal like a fruit fly or a nematode worm.”

He added that it was quite likely that there would be many failed experiments (abortions or malformed births) before they might have a successful pregnancy and a functioning offspring.

“Second, do we really know enough about the elephant’s adaptations to be sure we can fully equip it for life in the Arctic? This is a tropical animal that lives in equatorial daylight and climatic regime, eating trees and tall tropical grasses. They may be able to engineer a thick coat and fat layer, for example, but there may be many other necessary physiological or biochemical adaptations that we are not aware of. Will these animals thrive in such an alien environment?” he asked.

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