The fictional scenario created by Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park might become a reality if woolly mammoth cloning efforts prove to be successful. But the ethics of such gene editing procedures and warnings on their potential environmental consequences are shrouding the ambitious Harvard research project.
According to a report from The Guardian, a team of researchers from Harvard University may be only two years away from realizing its goal of “de-extinction” for the woolly mammoth. The team, which is led by professor George Church, is working on baking in mammoth features into an Asian elephant, which he claims would result in a hybrid embryo – it won’t be quite like the formidable beasts that roamed the Earth, but as close as we can get to seeing the Ice Age ancestors of modern elephants.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo. 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.”
In the end, the Harvard team hopes to create a “mammophant,” an animal that is similar to today’s elephants, but with mammoth traits that include smaller ears, longer, shaggier hair, blood adapted to cold weather, and subcutaneous fat. Church and his associates are using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to incorporate these features into elephant DNA, and The Guardian noted that the team is looking forward to creating embryos, with the further goal of creating living creatures possibly “many” years away.
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The project, however, has begged the question of what would happen if and when the scientists are able to create that “mammophant” hybrid embryo and achieve their primary woolly mammoth cloning goal of the moment. It has also sparked questions on ethics; aside from the use of the divisive CRISPR-Cas9 tool, there’s also the possibility that resurrecting the woolly mammoth may prove a spanner in the works to conservation efforts.
On Church’s end, he believes that the mammophant would be capable of curbing global warming and its effects on the world.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in. In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
But there are other scientists who are skeptical of these benefits, including University of Manchester professor of zoology Matthew Cobb, who told The Guardian that woolly mammoths were social animals, like modern Asian elephants. He warned against the dangers that may arise when modern elephants get to mingle with the woolly mammoth once cloned successfully.
In addition, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro chimed into BBC News with her opinion on why woolly mammoth cloning is not a good idea – the simple fact that elephants don’t do well when in captivity for whatever reason.
“They become physically and emotionally ill, they often fail to reproduce or if they do have babies, they injure and sometimes even kill them. Those animals shouldn’t be in captivity at all, much less be in captivity for some crazy scientific experiment. It’s extremely powerful technology. I don’t want to talk about my worries because I don’t want to put those ideas in bad people’s heads.”
Though it may seem like a cool idea to be surrounded by woolly mammoths in the present day, environmentalist George Monbiot does not see things that way. Three and a half years ago, he wrote on his personal blog that previously extinct creatures resurrected in modern times may only end up as curiosities, unable to adapt to their new, modernized environments, and possibly fair game to be abused and exploited by certain individuals.
“The one or two specimens which even the most ambitious de-extinction programs will struggle to produce will live and die in zoos. Or, perhaps, in the private collections of the exceedingly rich people who could fund their revival. The bragging rights, admittedly, would be incomparable..Come and see my woolly mammoth’ must be the world’s greatest lost chat-up line (though it could be horribly misinterpreted).”
The prospect of woolly mammoth cloning yielding a “mammophant” sometime in the near or distant future is interesting. But based on how some environmentalists and scientists have reacted to it, such a creature is sure to generate controversy as the Harvard team continues work on its de-extinction project.
[Featured Image by Matt Dunham/AP Images]