The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.
Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Prof George Church told The Guardian. “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.”
The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.
Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, said: “The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue – the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”
Church also outlined plans to grow the hybrid animal within an artificial womb rather than recruit a female elephant as a surrogate mother – a plan which some believe will not be achievable within the next decade.
“De-extincting” the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.
Church helped develop the most widely used technique, known as Crispr/Cas9, that has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012. Derived from a defence system bacteria use to fend off viruses, it allows the “cut and paste” manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.
Gene editing and its ethical implications is one of the key topics under discussion at the Boston conference.
Church, a guest speaker at the meeting, said the mammoth project had two goals: securing an alternative future for the endangered Asian elephant and helping to combat global warming. Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
The scientists intend to engineer elephant skin cells to produce the embryo, or multiple embryos, using cloning techniques. Nuclei from the reprogrammed cells would be placed into elephant egg cells whose own genetic material has been removed. The eggs would then be artificially stimulated to develop into embryos.
Church predicts that age-reversal will become a reality within 10 years as a result of the new developments in genetic engineering.