Let’s get the inevitable Jurassic Park comparisons out of the way right now. Because while what you’re about to read resembles in many ways the plot of a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, it is, in fact, the real deal. Thanks to the inexorable onset of global warming, and some incredible technological advances, the long-lost woolly mammoth may soon be roaming the earth once more.
That's right: ‘de-extinction’ is a thing. But how?
First, some quick background. Many millennia ago, huge herds of woolly mammoths roamed the vast tundra of Siberia. Eventually, like so many stone-age species, they died out, and their corpses were absorbed into the region’s permafrost. Fast forward 4,000 years, and climate change is causing the permafrost to thaw. Bad news from an environmental perspective, but a bonanza for anyone in the market for ancient mummified mammoth carcasses.
And that would include Harvard University Professor George Church and his team of genetic engineers. Having got hold of some of these fossilised remains, they’re now well on their way to resurrecting – well, de-extinctifying – the woolly mammoth.
Straight cloning’s not an option. You need live DNA for that. But de-extinction’s different. By extracting certain genes unique to the woolly mammoth – small ears, shaggy hair, subcutaneous fat and the ability to live in freezing conditions – and editing them into the DNA of an Asian elephant (the mammoth’s closest contemporary cousin), the scientists are aiming to create a “mammophant” embryo. They will then cultivate this hybrid creature -- basically an Asian elephant with introduced mammoth traits -- ex vivo in an artificial womb. As outlandish as this sounds, Professor Church reckons it’ll be a reality in just a couple of years.
A mammoth undertaking whatever way you look at it.
BTW, we weren’t joking about the market for ancient mammoth remains. Discover who’s buying – and who’s supplying – mammoth tusks in Smith Journal volume 27, on sale now.