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.