More than 10,000 years have passed since woolly mammoths roamed the planet, and a group of scientists wants to use gene editing technology to resurrect the long-lost creatures. A start-up named Colossal announced yesterday that they have secured funding that could bring thousands of woolly mammoths back to Siberia.
“This is a major milestone for us,” says George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to Carl Zimmer for the New York Times. “It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”
Previous discussions on resurrecting long-extinct animals like the woolly mammoth have been largely theoretical, but Colossal has taken many of the first steps toward resurrecting the creature using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR. Because woolly mammoths and Asian elephants shared a common ancestor some 6 million years ago, Church was optimistic that he could rewrite the elephants’ DNA to produce something that looks and behaves like a mammoth using CRISPR, which acts as a copy-and-paste tool for genetic code.
“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth,” Church says to the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40 Celsius.”
They compared genomes from surviving fragments of woolly mammoth DNA to those of modern elephants and pinpointed the biggest differences. By tweaking certain genes to produce denser hair or a thicker layer of fat, the team hopes to create an animal with mammoth-like characteristics. Church and his colleagues plan to create an artificial mammoth uterus lined with stem-cell-derived tissue to grow the mammoth fetus. They are optimistic that they will produce an elephant-mammoth hybrid within the next few years and hope to have a complete woolly mammoth within the decade.
The team at Colossal says the project is about more than a scientific stunt—the return of mammoths could benefit the arctic landscape by reducing moss and increasing grassland, according to the New York Times. Critics say there is little evidence that mammoths would help, and instead recommend more effective ways to restore the environment than resurrecting long-extinct creatures.
"There's absolutely nothing that says that putting mammoths out there will have any, any effect on climate change whatsoever," says Love Dalén, a paleogeneticist at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, to Katie Hunt for CNN.
Even if Colossal can pull off the feat, the Jurassic-Park-style revival has some scientists stopping to ask whether or not they should do it at all. There are numerous ethical quandaries around resurrecting extinct animals, especially when scientists don’t know very much about their biology and behavior.
The team still has major hurdles to pass before any baby mammoths are running around the Siberian tundra, including building an artificial uterus that can host a 200-pound fetus for its nearly two-year-long gestation period.