Geneticists, led by Harvard The George Church of the Faculty of Medicine aims to revive the woolly mammoth, which disappeared 4000 years ago, by imagining a future where the ice age giant with tusks will find its natural habitat.
Efforts were boosted considerably on Monday with the announcement of a $ 15 million investment.
Supporters say bring mammoth back in modified form could help restore the fragile arctic tundra ecosystem, fight against the climate crisis, and preserve the endangered Asian elephant, to which the woolly mammoth is most closely related. However, it is a bold plan loaded with ethical questions.
The goal is not to clone a mammoth – the DNA scientists have managed to extract from the woolly mammoth that remains frozen in the permafrost is far too fragmented and degraded – but to create, through genetic engineering, an elephant hybrid. -living and traveling mammoth. which would be visually indistinguishable from its extinct predecessor.
“Now we can actually do it”
The new investment and focus brought by Lamm and its investors is a big step forward, said Church, Robert Winthrop professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
“Until 2021, it was kind of a background project, frankly.… But now we can do it,” Church said.
“It will change everything.”
“We’ve had to make a lot of (genetic) changes, 42 so far to make them compatible with humans. And in this case, we have very healthy pigs breeding and donating organs for preclinical trials in Massachusetts. General Hospital, ”he said.
“With the elephant it’s a different goal but it’s a similar number of changes.”
The research the team has analyzed the genomes of 23 species of living elephants and extinct mammoths, Church said. Scientists believe they will have to simultaneously program “more than 50 modifications” to the Asian elephant’s genetic code to give it the traits it needs to survive and thrive in the Arctic.
These features, Church said, include a 10-centimeter layer of insulating grease, five different types of shaggy hair, some of which can be up to three feet in length, and smaller ears that will help the hybrid tolerate the cold. . The team also plans to try to design the animal so that it has no tusks so that it is not the target of ivory poachers.
Once a cell with these and other characteristics has been successfully programmed, Church plans to use an artificial uterus to move from embryo to baby – something that takes 22 months for living elephants. However, this technology is far from established, and Church said they have not ruled out the use of live elephants as surrogates.
“The assembly, I think, is going to go smoothly. We have a lot of experience with that, I think the fabrication of artificial uteri is not guaranteed. It is one of the few things that is not pure engineering, there is maybe a little bit of science in there as well, which always increases the uncertainty and lead time, ”he said.
Love Dalén, professor of evolutionary genetics at the Stockholm Center for Paleogenetics who works on the evolution of mammoths, believes that the work undertaken by Church and his team has scientific value, especially when it comes to species conservation. endangered who have genetic diseases or a lack of genetic variation resulting from inbreeding.
“If endangered species have lost genes that are important to them … the ability to put them back into endangered species, that could turn out to be very important, ”said Dalén, who is not involved in the project.
“I still wonder what the biggest point would be. First of all, you’re not going to have a mammoth. It’s a hairy elephant with fat deposits.
“We, of course, have very little clue as to the genes that make a mammoth into a mammoth. We know a little, a little, but we certainly don’t know enough.”
Others say it is unethical to use live elephants as surrogates to give birth to a genetically modified animal. Dalén described mammoths and Asian elephants as being as different as humans and chimpanzees.
“Let’s say it works and there are no horrible consequences. No elephant surrogate dies,” said Tori Herridge, evolutionary biologist and mammoth specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, who is not involved in the project.
“The idea that by bringing mammoths back and placing them in the Arctic, you are designing the Arctic to be a better place for carbon storage. I have a number of problems with that aspect.”
Some believe that before their extinction, grazing animals like mammoths, horses and bison maintained the grasslands in the northern regions of our planet and kept the frozen land below by trampling the grass, chopping down trees. and compacting the snow. Reintroducing mammoths and other large mammals to these locations will help revitalize these environments and slow the thawing of permafrost and the release of carbon.
However, Dalén and Herridige said there was no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it was hard to imagine herds of cold-adapted elephants impacting an environment struggling with forest fires, riddled with sludge and heating up faster than anywhere else. in the world.
“There is absolutely nothing that says putting mammoths there will have any effect on climate change,” said Dalén.
Ultimately, the stated end goal of wandering mammoth herds as ecosystem engineers may not matter, and neither Herridge nor Dalén is hitting Church and Lamm for getting on with the project. Many people might be happy to pay to approach a mammoth by proxy.
“Maybe it’s fun to introduce them to the zoo. I don’t have a big problem with that if they want to put them in a park somewhere and, you know, get the kids more interested in the past,” said Dalén.
There is “no pressure” for the project to make money, Lamm said. It focuses on the effort resulting in innovations that have applications in biotechnology and healthcare. He compared it to how Project Apollo made people care about space exploration, but also resulted in a lot of amazing technologies, including GPS.
“I am absolutely fascinated by this. I am drawn to people who are technologically adventurous and there is a possibility that this will make a positive difference,” said Herridge, the mammoth expert.