Can you imagine resurrecting the woolly mammoth, the gargantuan creature that once walked the tundras during the Ice Age!
A start-up, aptly titled Colossal, has raised $15 million for an ambitious goal -- to repopulate the Siberian tundra with herds of this prehistorically extinct species.
The effort is led by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard genetics professor Dr. George Church. The company is seeking to edit the genomes of Asian elephants, in the hopes of creating a mammal genetically close to the original woolly mammoth.
The Science Behind This Mammoth Feat!
Church and his team have been working on developing a technology called CRISPR which allows them to edit genes (learn about CRISPR here).
In 2017, Church’s team successfully added 45 mammoth genes to the genome of an Asian elephant, making significant progress towards their goal of modifying elephant DNA.
Scientists at Colossal aim to isolate genes responsible for specific mammoth traits -- such as woolly hair, dense body fat, and smaller ears. These traits would be edited into the DNA of existing Asian elephants. The mammoth embryos would then develop in surrogate elephant mothers.
Given the limitations of surrogacy, Colossal has a parallel goal of creating artificial wombs for their baby mammoth-elephant hybrids (dubbed “mammophants”) to grow. If all goes well, by 2027, herds of mammophants would be introduced to Pleistocene Park, a preserve in Siberia.
Mammoths and Climate Change
Church believes the reintroduction of the creatures to the Arctic could transform barren tundras into lush grasslands.
Mammoths once trampled down thick layers of snow and allowed cold air to permeate the underlying soil. This preserved the Arctic’s permafrost, a layer of the frozen earth. At the end of the Ice Age, when mammoths began to go extinct, permafrost melted, releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Church thinks that the return of mammoths could help reverse this trend, bringing back grasslands and the permafrost beneath. Larger areas of grassland could then help prevent soil erosion and absorb greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Colossal’s ambitious plans have raised concerns among scientists who would rather use these resources into preserving existing, but critically endangered species.
Other scientists point to the drastically different ecosystems that the mammophants would encounter. Mammophants might not be able to adapt to modern conditions.
In addition, many plant and animal species that once lived alongside the mammoths are now extinct. In this sense, mammoths could potentially act as an invasive species, damaging the Arctic ecosystem. Scientists are also skeptical about mammophants’ impact on climate change. It remains uncertain as to what degree mammoth trampling can affect global temperatures, and whether this could contribute positively to the environment.
For now, Colossal is moving forward with its "mammoth" task and has set an optimistic goal of having the first calves in the next four to six years.
What do you think? Should we bring back woolly mammoths?
Sources: NY Times, Tech Crunch, NPR, NatGeo, CNET