- Mammoths once lived in much of Europe, northern Asia, and North America
- They went into decline 10,000 years ago due to warming and hunting
- A US firm hopes to bring them back as elephant-mammoth hybrids
- They hope the scheme will help in the conservation of endangered Asian elephants
- Adopting the qualities of woolly mammoths could help them survive in the Arctic
- Leaving them loose could also help restore decline in Arctic grasslands
- The project is led by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and geneticist George Church
The woolly mammoth in the form of an elephant-mammoth hybrid could be brought back from extinction within six years, a new scientific project has claimed.
Once inhabiting much of Europe, North America and northern Asia, the iconic Ice Age species went into a terminal decline about 10,000 years ago.
The death of the creatures—which can grow to be about 11-12 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons—is linked to warmer climates and hunting by our ancestors.
Now, a US-based bioscience and genetics company, Colossal, has managed to raise $15 million (£10.8 million) to bring back this prehistoric giant.
The program – not the first to envision a giant ‘de-extinction’ – is being offered as a way to help save Asian elephants adapted to life in the Arctic.
The team also claimed that introducing hybrids into the Arctic steppe could help restore degraded habitat and fight some of the effects of climate change.
In particular, he argued, the elephant-mammoth mix would knock down trees, helping to restore Arctic grasslands—which keep the ground cooler.
It will also help these environments better isolate greenhouse gases.
Colossal Texan is the brainchild of tech entrepreneur Ben Lam and pioneering but controversial Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church.
Researchers have claimed that the woolly mammoth (pictured in this artist’s impression) could be brought back from extinction within six years as an elephant-mammoth hybrid.
To create the elephant-woolly mammoth hybrid, researchers will take DNA from ancient samples and combine them with artificial elephant stem cells to create a hybrid embryo. It will be brought in either by a surrogate mother or in an artificial womb
Colossal Texan is the brainchild of tech entrepreneur Ben Lam and Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church. Image: Mr Lam (left) posing with Professor Church (right)
CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for precise editing of DNA.
The technique involves a DNA cutting enzyme and a short tag that tells the enzyme where to cut.
By editing this tag, scientists are able to target the enzyme to specific regions of DNA and make precise cuts wherever they want.
It has been used to ‘silence’ genes – effectively turning them off.
However, this system can also be used to add new genetic code at precise locations along the genome.
Professor Church said, ‘Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a giant. Guardian.
‘Not because we’re trying to trick someone, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to giant.’
He explained that the hybrid species would enjoy their time at ‘-40 °C’. [-40°F], and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, especially felling trees.’
“Our goal is not just to bring back the mammoths, but to bring back interbreeding herds that have successfully returned to the Arctic region,” Mr Lam said.
Whether Asian elephants will actually try to breed with hybrids, however, is something that remains to be seen.
Church quipped, ‘We might have to give them a little shave.
To create the elephant-mammoth hybrid, researchers at Colossal will first need to sequence the woolly mammoth’s genome from a well-preserved, specimen – such as that recovered after freezing in permafrost.
They will then compare them to ancient genomes from modern Asian elephants to identify parts of the DNA that code for the mammoth’s cold-climate adaptations – such as hair, insulating fat layers and cold-tolerant blood.
This useful genetic material would then be added to Asian elephant stem cells – which are created by modifying the animal’s skin cells themselves – using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool and transplanted into the egg cell of an Asian elephant.
This egg will then be stimulated as an embryo and brought into either a surrogate elephant mother or, alternatively, an artificial womb.
Woolly mammoths are one of the best prehistoric animals known to science because their remains are often not fossilized but frozen and preserved – which also means we can study their DNA. Image: ‘Yuka’, the best-preserved woolly mammoth found in the Siberian in 2010. Experts believe that Yuka was 6-8 years old when she died.
The practicality and ethics of bringing back extinct species like the woolly mammoth has been debated for more than a decade.
Believing that this is possible, however, some experts have expressed doubts that creating elephant-mammoth hybrids is the best way to restore the Arctic tundra.
“The idea that you can geoengineer the Arctic environment just by hearing about mammoths is not plausible,” Victoria Herridge, a natural history evolutionary biologist, told the Guardian.
“The scale at which you have to do this experiment is huge,” he said.
‘You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths that take 22 months to conceive and 30 years to mature.’
“We need many different ways to stop climate change, but we also need to start addressing solutions responsibly to avoid unintended harmful consequences,” said Gareth Phoenix, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield.