Scientists launch plan to resurrect extinct woolly mammoths in the Arctic

·3-min read
 (Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Woolly mammoths could roam the land once more as scientists embark on an ambitious project to bring them back to the Arctic tundra.

Researchers have spent years studying the possibility of recreating the giant beasts which went extinct 10,000 years ago amid a warming climate and widespread human hunting.

Now, bioscience and genetics company Colossal believes it can take on the task with an £11 million boost in funding and the first calves expected in six years.

Scientists hope to create a hybrid animal by growing embryos in the laboratory, putting skin cells from Asian elephants into stem cells with mammoth DNA.

Using advanced gene-editing technology, genomes would be taken from animals recovered from permafrost and a surrogate mother would carry the embryos.

Famous Harvard geneticist Professor George Church launched the new venture alongside startup founder Ben Lamm, most famous for planning to launch satellites to look for UFOs in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Prof Church said: “Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth.

“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 -40C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do.”

How will they do it?

Mammoth-specific genes are identified by comparing the genetics of frozen woolly mammoth specimens and Asian elephants.

Scientists will then edit the skin cells of Asian elephants so that they can carry the woolly mammoth genes.

An egg is created from stem cells in the lab and its nucleus is swapped with that from the skin cell containing mammoth DNA.

It is then stimulated so that it starts to divide and grow either in a surrogate elephant mother or even an artificial womb.

Technically speaking, this would not produce an actual woolly mammoth but a genetically engineered hybrid.

What is the goal?

The Woolly Mammoth Revival aims to bring back the extinct species so that healthy herds may one day re-populate vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America.

The intent is not to make perfect copies of extinct woolly mammoths, but to focus on the mammoth adaptations needed for Asian elephants to thrive in the cold climate of the Arctic.

Over the last 800,000 years, the species was a significant part of the Arctic ecosystem until relatively recently, roaming across the grasslands of North America, Russia and Europe before going extinct.

Some scientists argue that the tundra ecosystem that arose in their absence is now affected by and contributing to human-driven climate change.

They say without large animals to compact and scrape away thick insulating layers of winter snow, extreme winter cold does not penetrate the soil.

However, not all experts support the plan.

Dr Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum said the project was “implausible”.

The researcher, who studies elephants, said: “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?”

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