What To Expect When Expecting a Woolly Mammoth

What happens when you try to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction? According to Professor George Church, from Harvard University, we will know in 2 years or so (give or take 10 years) [1].

The woolly mammoth went extinct about 4,000 years ago, but it actually started dying out about 40,000 ago in the Quaternary Extinction Event [2]. It’s a very familiar tale to most of us today- human actions and climate change are the main reasons why the woolly mammoth started to die out [2]. There are debates on which of the two had a greater effect on the mammoths, but the result remained the same- an extinct species. Now, the way it used to work is that once a species goes extinct we only have records (via DNA, fossils, samples, etc..) left to work with and understand these long gone species. In fact, scientists have found woolly mammoth bones, preserved carcases, and tusks (unsurprising, given the extensive amount of ivory poaching still going on). Using these samples, scientists have sequenced them to the best of their ability, given that DNA will naturally degrade over time, and then studied them to learn more. But, what if there was a way to bring them back and learn even more?

The short answer is that we can’t bring it back completely, but we can create (or attempt to create) a sort of hybrid elephant-mammoth creature (totally not scary at all). That is the ultimate goal of the Revive and Restore Project being helmed by Professor George Church for the woolly mammoth [3]. The plan is fairly straightforward. They are using CRISPR ( clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which allows scientists to precisely target areas in DNA, to take mammoth genes and insert it into the genome of an Asian elephant [3]. Once the genes are inserted, the full genome is placed in an egg. Then, the clone is allowed to grow in an artificial womb.

As I mentioned this project is being advertised as a woolly mammoth revival project, but it is more like a hybrid Asian elephant-woolly mammoth creature, which is also a bit of a stretch because the reality is that it’s primarily an enhanced Asian elephant. For Professor Church, the main goal is to create an Asian elephant that is capable of living in more environments, especially colder environments [3]. In fact, the genes that they are inserting into the Asian elephant genome are meant to give the elephant three major adaptations [3]. The first is giving them thicker body hair to protect them from the cold. The second is increasing their body fat so that they can withstand the cold and fast. The third is allowing them to increase blood oxygen release (to keep blood-oxygen levels stable) at low temperature. All of these would allow the Asian elephant to move into areas like tundras in Canada or Russia [1].

So why the Asian elephant and not any other elephants? Asian elephants are the closest relatives to woolly mammoths to the point that they are probably capable of mating with woolly mammoths (if they were still here). This is important for a few reasons. Their close relations makes it easier to integrate the new genes without rejection, which in turn increases the chances that a viable offspring would be produced. Also, the Asian elephants would, ideally, be able to mate with this enhanced elephant and produce more offsprings to expand their population. This becomes important because the goal is to help Asian elephants survive and not go extinct due to climate change or human effects [1].

A big ethical question here is whether these enhanced Asian elephants are actually Asian elephants or something else because if you modify a creature, the new creature is something new and not the same as the original. Are they the same or different? These questions will become increasingly important and difficult to answer as more creatures face extinction and we become desperate in our attempts to save them.

Now the last issue in this endeavour is the artificial womb. They are using an artificial womb because the offspring is expected to be bigger than a normal Asian elephant offsprings, so putting a female elephant through this process would be an ethical grey area as her life would probably be endangered by the process [1]. Creating a womb to mimic real ones is extremely difficult to accomplish and Professor Church and his team have not done so yet. You would have to accommodate all the nutritional needs, oxygen levels, pressure, and many other factors in order to bring the offspring to term. This is probably one of their most ambitious and difficult tasks they will face. If they can get to this point, then it would take 2 years to bring the offspring to term.

Hopefully, they are able to do this because it would be revolutionary for many different parts of science from conservation and genetic engineering to human birthing issues. Professor Church and his team estimate that a 10-year timeline is to be expected before the final result [4]. So until then we wait and imagine what may come of this project. What other species would you like to bring back? Dinosaurs don’t count (their DNA is probably too degraded to glean any information from).

Photograph: Andrew Nelmerm/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

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