Scenes of woolly mammoths roaming the frozen tundra of Siberia may seem more apt for a history book or a film in the Jurassic Park series, but a group of researchers and entrepreneurs is seeking to make it a contemporary reality.
Colossal, a privately funded entity with $15m (£10.8m) behind it to date, announced Monday that it plans to genetically engineer the imposingly sized creature. If successful, it would bring the mammoth back some 4,000 years after the species became extinct, and roughly 10,000 years after they last roamed Siberia.
Harvard biologist George Church, whose lab is one of three where research will be conducted for the project, laid the groundwork for it in 2013, proposing to use the DNA extraction from fossils as well as genetically similar animals, such as elephants. A contemporary relative and the original species’ DNA structure could provide bases for comparison and, ultimately, re-engineering.
The project earned some backing from PayPal’s Peter Thiel in 2017, yet has recently garnered more interest thanks to the broader potential applications of the project within genetics, medicine and ecology. Backers of the initiative include private equity firm Climate Capital, which has taken interest in projects that reduce carbon emissions.
Potential in the tundra, beyond
Climate Capital’s intrigue here may well be the environmental impact that the re-introduction of the mammoth would have in Siberia, where ecologists have attempted to turn some mossy areas of the tundra into grassland again. When the mammoths roamed the area, it was grassy, and the restoration of those conditions could help enrich soil as well as reduce carbon emissions.
Genetically, the project would be by far the largest and most ambitious undertaking in terms of genetically engineering a living being. It would also have applications that take it further than the icy Siberian sprawl. While the mammoth’s re-introduction would be a Herculean feat, it’s hard to see direct profit motive in it. Yet much of what could be gleaned from the project could have implications in reproductive planning, endangered species protection, and gaining deeper insight into human and animal genetics.
“This set of tools can be used for many purposes, whether it’s de-extinction or recoding the human genome,” Dr. Eriona Hysolli, who will supervise the project, told The New York Times.
Risks and ethical questions
The current proposal for the project would entail synthsising a mammoth uterus, which would house a fetus that would likely outweigh the average American and gestate over a span of two years. That’s well beyond the scale of any similar projects that have been carried out to date.
Setting aside the significant logistical undertaking, ethical questions abound in this venture, The Times reported.
As a species that became extinct well before any established scientific study, mammoths are likely to be among the relative mysteries of the animal kingdom. How will the family structure, which will be naturally absent in early new mammoths, play out for the early generations? While the mammoths could have benefits to their environs, it’s unclear who would be the arbiter of when or how they would be released into the wild.
“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” paleogeneticist and author of “How to Clone a Mammoth” Beth Shapiro told The Times.