At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the team introduced their idea for a “an elephant with a number of mammoth traits,” which they believe could become a reality in the next two years.
Scientists have wanted to bring back woolly mammoths for a long time. The reason they went extinct in the first place is a subject of much debate — nobody really knows if we were to blame or not. Either way, they’re a firm favourite for de-extinction and researchers now believe they could be roaming around a few years from now.
This “mammophant” would have features of a mammoth such as long, shaggy hair and adaptations to the cold like subcutaneous fat and specially adapted blood.
The project started in 2015, and since then the team have been able to add more and more edits into elephant DNA from 15 to 45.
“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” said leader of the research team Professor George Church, according to The Guardian.
While reintroducing mammoths is a passion project for some, and there’s an argument it could help preserve the endangered Asian elephant in ahybrid form, others aren’t so sure.
Mark Carnall, the Life Collections Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, tweeted his concerns:
Many, including Carnall, think the ethical and ecological implications of bringing back major species have not been fully thought through. For example, mammoths were social animals like elephants, but there’s no way of knowing how a herd of elephants would welcome a mammophant.
There’s also the possibility they could destroy native species and disrupt the ecosystem in ways that haven’t been considered. The reasons behind bringing them back are shaky too, considering mammoths haven’t been around on Earth for 4,500 years after being killed off by climate change or hunting. It’s a massive decision whether an animal will be an asset to the environment or it’s being reintroduced just a means of clearing our conscience.
But this hasn’t deterred the Harvard team, who hope to eventually grow the hybrid embryo within an artificial womb. The de-extinction of these animals is more possible than ever before thanks to sophisticated gene editing techniques like Crispr. It’s also made easier by the fact mammoth DNA has been unusually well preserved because specimens have been frozen in Siberian ice for thousands of years.