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20 February 2017

Counteracting Extinction - The Revival of the Woolly Mammoth

When you think of the ice age, I’d be willing to wager that the first creature to pop into your mind is the woolly mammoth. An ancient beast of massive proportions, these hardy cousins to our modern day elephants were expertly adapted to the harsh, frozen landscape of their time. Unfortunately, as the Pleistocene epoch drew to a close around 10,000 years ago a combination of changing climates and the deadly actions of our own ancestors saw mammoth populations plummet. The species disappeared entirely from much of its past habitat, only surviving in isolated communities such as St. Paul Island and Wrangel Island. The last known living mammoths vanished even from Wrangel Island approximately 4,000 years ago, marking the extinction of the species.

Now, in a somewhat less-violent reimagining of the plot line from Jurassic Park, scientists from Harvard University are aiming to revive the once-lost species by combining DNA extracted from the permafrost with that of the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative – the Asian elephant. If that’s not amazing enough, the Harvard team claim that the hybrid species could be a reality in as little as two years!

Heading up the project is Prof George Church of Harvard University. Speaking of the ‘de-extinction’ effort ahead of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Prof Church stated, “Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo. Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

It certainly sounds like an exciting prospect, but even with recent developments taken into account there is much work to be done before Prof Church’s vision is realised. Commencing in 2015, the project is focused on “edits” – the manipulation of inherent traits and characteristics via splicing of the elephant genome. Since starting the project the researchers have increased the number of “edits” where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45. However, some traits are harder than others to modify.

“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” Prof Church states.

“We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.”

Scientific hurdles aren’t the only roadblock the project is facing either. Some, such as paleobiologist Tori Herridge, have serious ethical questions regarding the project. In an article for The Guardian she outlined her concerns; of particular note are her comments on the use of a surrogate:

“Any attempt to clone a mammoth would probably require a living elephant – likely to be Asian – to act as a surrogate. To go through 22 months of pregnancy, carrying an animal of a completely different species as part of the experiment. An intelligent, social animal, at the brink of extinction, and one we know doesn’t do all that well in captivity. And not just one elephant. In reality, many surrogates would be needed before a successful baby mammoth was born.

“There are very good reasons for using animals in scientific research, but there are also strict ethical codes of practice that demand that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the suffering to the animals involved. Does the potential benefit to humanity of cloning a mammoth outweigh the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother might experience? I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that it does.”

For that one at least, Prof Church has an answer.

Rather than being grown in the womb of a living elephant, Prof Church plans for his hybrid to begin life in an artificial womb in the lab. This alleviates many potential ethical concerns by reducing the potential to cause suffering, Prof Church states:

“We hope to do the entire procedure ex-vivo (outside a living body). It would be unreasonable to put female reproduction at risk in an endangered species.

“We’re testing the growth of mice ex-vivo. There are experiments in the literature from the 1980s but there hasn’t been much interest for a while. Today we’ve got a whole new set of technology and we’re taking a fresh look at it.”

So, case closed? Not quite.

Carrying similar concerns to those of Herridge, Professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, Matthew Cobb, believes the ethics of the project to be questionable at best, even with the inclusion of an artificial womb. The highly social nature of these creatures, he says, must be considered:

“Church’s team is proposing to rear the embryo in an ‘artificial womb’ which seems ambitious to say the least – the resultant animal would have been deprived of all the pre-birth interactions with its mother.”

All childish excitement aside, a quick flick through online comments regarding the story highlights a definite divide in opinion. While some are eager to see the return of these majestic creatures, many have questions regarding either the ethics of the project or whether it should even be happening at all. Countless comments speak of the wish for scientific research to focus more on living species, such as the endangered elephants this very project aims to modify.

So, we want to hear your opinion too. Are you excited about the idea of mammoths returning? Do you see the whole idea as rather cruel? Or do you simple wish to see a shift in focus to other areas? Let us know down in the comments.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.