Tatiana Zhelezniakova interviews Dr Damien Brown who recounts the challenges of medical humanitarianism, working for MSF and returning to First World medicineWritten by Tatiana Zhelezniakova on 19th April 2017
Resurrection: Can We Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?
Kara Watson investigates a claim by group of scientists that say they can bring back the Woolly Mammoth within two years
10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths roamed the Earth during the last ice age. Their habitat stretched from Eurasia, across China, all the way to North America. They co-existed with early humans, before disappearing from their mainland habitat due to climate change and over-hunting, with only a few isolated populations surviving up until about 4,000 years ago. These are long-lost creatures, and while it used to be a fantasy that they would once again be reanimated (Jurassic Park style), one group of scientists claim they are only two years away from doing so.
The group at Harvard University, led by Prof. George Church, are aiming to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid embryo within the next few years. Using DNA extracted from mammoth specimens preserved in Arctic permafrost, they are aiming to splice the genomes of the mammoth and its closest living relative – the Asian elephant. This is known as “de-extinction”, or resurrection biology, and it is the process of reanimating an individual or population of an extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth. “
“However, don’t expect to have a replicate Manny from the Ice Age films walking around
However, don’t expect to have a replicate Manny from the Ice Age films walking around. The resulting animal won’t be pure mammoth due to the elephant genome being used as a base. Therefore, its appearance will be mostly like the Asian elephant, but with smaller ears, more fat under the skin, the classic long hair, and antifreeze blood; all traits which allowed the woolly mammoth to survive the ice age.
The scientists are using the gene editing tool CRISPR, a defence system taken from bacteria which use it to defend against attacking viruses. CRISPR allows you to “cut and paste” sections of DNA from one genome to another. So far, the research group has successfully spliced 45 genes from the mammoth into the elephant DNA, and they have done tests to show that cells function normally when they contain both sets of DNA.
One problem they’ve encountered is how to carry the embryo to term. They are unable to use an Asian elephant surrogate as the elephants are an endangered species. Therefore, they are aiming to do it in a lab using an artificial womb. This technology, though, has not yet been properly developed, and some say it won’t be ready in the next decade. So, we may be seeing a hybrid embryo, but not a full-grown mammoth-elephant for a long time.
The researchers are currently testing out the theory of creating an artificial womb in the lab, and have been able to achieve some success with mice, reaching half of their gestation period, which is 10 days. But as an elephant’s gestation period is around 660 days, it is obvious there is still a long way to go.
But should we be resurrecting the mammoth?
However, not everyone is thrilled at the idea of having mammoths walking the Earth again. Some researchers are questioning whether the extensive funds could be better spent elsewhere, for example, on the conservation of the Asian elephant itself. These animals are under threat from poaching and habitat loss, and the money spent on the resurrection could go a long way to helping the elephants.
“He claims that the mammoths would slow down global warming as they would stop the tundra ice from thawing
Prof. Church has defended his work, arguing that the woolly mammoth was a keystone species, and resurrecting it would aid both conservation and climate change. The Arctic permafrost contains a vast reserve of greenhouse gases, and when it melts these are released into the atmosphere, increasing the temperature. He claims that the mammoths would slow down global warming as they would stop the tundra ice from thawing by punching through the snow, which allows cold air to pass through and cool it down.
It is also argued to be a form of conservation, as you are preserving the Asian elephants and not letting them go extinct, albeit in a different form. The novelty and technology of resurrection biology may also bring in new donors and investors into conservation, giving more money overall to the protection of other species. Some also say we have a moral obligation to bring back the woolly mammoth as it is a species we probably had a big hand in destroying.
However, there are some problems with these arguments. To get the effects of potentially slowing down climate change that Prof. Church speaks of, a large population would be required. Also, woolly mammoth behaviour may not always be genetically inherited, instead it could be passed by behavioural transmission from the parents to offspring, and these lab-grown mammoths will have no parents to teach them. There is not even any guarantee that this whole venture will work as expected. The woolly mammoth traits may not appear in the elephant hybrid as gene editing doesn’t always have such predictable effects.
As mentioned before, there are issues with creating a large population of these animals; we simply don’t yet have the technology to create that many. Each individual would have to be genetically distinct, otherwise the lack of genetic diversity would cause them to die out, as the more variation there is in a population, the more adaptable they are. At the moment, we only have a handful of specimens to extract DNA from.
Prof. Matthew Cobb from the University of Manchester asks what would happen to the first mammoth calves born, who will have no other members of their species alive – ‘The mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal … what will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?’
“They may completely unbalance the ecosystem which has adapted to live without them for thousands of years
Personally, I think it is amazing that we have developed such technology, but it is too much of a risk to carry it out, especially when the funds could be put towards the conservation of wonderful animals that are still alive? I shall end with this quote from an editorial piece done by Scientific American – ‘Should we resurrect the mammoth only to let elephants go under? Of course not.’