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This could pos­sibly be the world’s future. Courtesy | Wiki­Media Commons

Imagine vis­iting the tundra and seeing a herd of woolly mam­moths grazing in the dis­tance. What was once a movie called “Jurassic Park” could soon become a reality. Sci­en­tists have the tools of de-extinction and genome editing at hand, but the ethical and mon­etary uncer­tainties are too risky to bring back the woolly mammoth.

Mam­moths orig­i­nated in Africa around 6 million years ago. Then, they spread into southern Europe, Siberia, and northern Canada. They sur­vived until 4,000 years ago when the last of the pop­u­lation died from genetic defects because of inbreeding.

Sadly, humans cannot expe­rience woolly mam­moths today. The animals reached heights of 13 feet and weighed around 6 tons, making them the largest mammals that walked the earth. A thick coat of brown hair that even lined their ears covered the mammoth. Their large, curved tusks were suitable for fighting and as a digging tool for for­aging under the snow.

Colossal, a bio­science and genetics company, has a $15 million fund to recreate the woolly mammoth and return the animal to the wild. Tech entre­preneur Ben Lamm and genetics pro­fessor at Harvard Medical School, George Church, teamed up to establish the company.

Church said in an interview with the Guardian that their “goal is to make a cold-resistant ele­phant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. [It] is func­tionally equiv­alent to the mammoth that will enjoy its time at ‑40 degrees Celsius, and do all the things that ele­phants and mam­moths do, knocking down trees.” 

Colossal plans on using de-extinction to res­urrect the woolly mammoth. It is a form of restoration that uses the basic structure of a living rel­ative and adds par­ticular traits of the extinct animal. Sci­en­tists would recover frozen mammoth DNA to isolate their unique fea­tures and behaviors. They will apply the selected genes to the Asian ele­phant, the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative.

Researchers determine where the mammoth genome differs from the Asian ele­phant and change those genes accord­ingly. The spe­cific mammoth traits they look for are traits that helped mam­moths survive in frigid weather. Those include shaggy hair, small ears, a layer of fat under the skin, and blood that resists freezing.

Sci­en­tists use DNA-editing tools to create copies of mammoth genes. They splice the genes into the DNA of cells col­lected from living Asian ele­phants. Then, they design an embryo with the right genes to create a hybrid mammoth. Sci­en­tists also plan on building an arti­ficial womb to carry the egg so that they don’t risk the lives of the endan­gered Asian elephants.

The science may be fas­ci­nating and inno­v­ative, but sci­en­tists are ignoring the problems they could cause. Many sci­en­tists argue that mam­moths could stop the per­mafrost from releasing green­house gases into the atmos­phere. They used to scrape away layers of snow so that cold air could reach the per­mafrost and keep it frozen. The problem is that mam­moths did this thou­sands of years ago, so dis­tinct ecosystems exist under various envi­ron­mental conditions. 

Woolly mam­moths may have kept the Arctic ground cool in their time. Gareth Phoenix, a pro­fessor of plant and global change ecology at the Uni­versity of Sheffield, argued that there are now forested Arctic regions that have tree and moss cover to protect the per­mafrost. Therefore, having mam­moths remove trees and trample the ground would end up being harmful to the arctic ecosystem.

“The idea that you could geo­engineer the Arctic envi­ronment using a herd of mam­moths – isn’t plau­sible,” said evo­lu­tionary biol­ogist Dr. Vic­toria Her­ridge, “the scale at which you’d have to do this exper­iment is enormous. You are talking about hun­dreds of thou­sands of mam­moths.” The Arctic covers mil­lions of miles of land, and mam­moths couldn’t pos­sibly do all the work that sci­en­tists expect of them.

Any large-scale de-extinction plan would be too expensive and coun­ter­pro­ductive. Sci­en­tists could spend the money else­where, specif­i­cally on efforts to prevent the extinction of the world’s plants and animals today. Why bring back a long-extinct creature when researchers can save the ones dying off right now? The white rhino and Amur leopard have less than 80 living in the wild.

Even though sci­en­tists are not planning on bringing back dinosaurs, they have to think about the lessons of “Jurassic Park.” It teaches that there are uncer­tainties in res­ur­recting animals, and they can cause more problems than they could solve. Humans should let the dead remain dead and focus on improving the lives of the living beings around them.