A new de-extinction company called Colossal that is being led by entrepreneur Ben Lamm and geneticist Dr. George Church say that they are hoping to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth within the next six years. While the last of the woolly mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago, the new plan is to change the genome of Asian elephants in order to create modern mammoths.
In a press release, Lamm discussed their intentions, “Never before has humanity been able to harness the power of this technology to rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future through the repopulation of extinct animals,” adding, “In addition to bringing back ancient extinct species like the woolly mammoth, we will be able to leverage our technologies to help preserve critically endangered species that are on the verge of extinction and restore animals where humankind had a hand in their demise.”
So, how exactly do they plan on resurrecting the mammoth? They would have to add mammoth genes to DNA from Asian elephants in order to create curved tusks, tinier ears, subcutaneous fat stores, and a thick shaggy coat that would allow them to live in the Arctic Circle. This combination would create an Asian elephant/woolly mammoth hybrid.
There are several issues regarding the resurrection of an already extinct animal as noted by Dr. Victoria Herridge who is a researcher at the National History Museum, “There are a lot of questions raised by this project. The key ethical points are the aspects of animal experimentation and husbandry - what is this creature? Is it a new species? How many do you need?” “Then if they succeed, what will the needs be of an intelligent social creature? And what are our obligations to it?”
There in fact two different ways animals could be resurrected. The first is cloning where the DNA in the cell of one animal is inserted into a fertilized egg and put into a surrogate mother – there hasn’t been a complete mammoth genome that has been found yet so that poses a problem. The second manner is finding individual genes of one animal and inserting them into the genome of another – this could possibly work for bringing the mammoth back as the modified genome would be put into a fertilized elephant egg and then put into a surrogate elephant. Artificial wombs have been suggested but there’s no proof that those would work either.
“At that point you have to start asking questions about the ethics of experimentation on elephants. You won't know whether or not there is an issue with your chimeric creature until further down the line,” Dr. Herridge pointed out.
As for whether or not resurrecting the woolly mammoth would actually reverse climate change, the company stated that they hope to “re-wild extinct species to their original habitats so they can revitalize lost ecosystems for a healthier planet.” There is a theory that mammoths aided in fighting climate change by bringing back and maintaining the plentiful grassland steppes in the Arctic but after they went extinct, the area turned to forests. Since forests absorb heat from the sun, the grassland would help to cool the planet.
While it would be interesting and a little eerie to see a woolly mammoth roaming around, this new company is focused on bringing even more extinct animals back from the dead – what could possibly go wrong?