The woolly mammoth went extinct approximately 4,000 years ago, but if researchers leading a “de-extinction” project have anything to say about it the giant elephant-like mammals will once again be roaming the earth soon.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Professor George Church at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston earlier this week, according to the Independent. “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.”
Church leads the Harvard-based research team working on the project.
He says his team is only about two years away from creating the hybrid embryo, in which “mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.”
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As the Independent‘s Hannah Devlin explains, “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.”
The Inquisitr previously reported on Crispr gene-editing technology, particularly in regards to Chinese researchers introducing Crispr-edited genes into humans for the first time in hopes of finding new and better ways of treating certain types of cancers.
CRISPR is so successful at altering genes because it achieves two crucial processes at once — with impressive levels of accuracy and efficiency. It can target specific genes and lock on them while also cutting the DNA strand.
“The reason it’s able to manage this precision double act is because CRISPR is made of ribonucleic acid (RNA) — a molecule that can be tailor-made to perfectly match a sequence of DNA or to bind to a protein,” science writer Bernie Hobbs explains in an Australian Broadcasting Commission report.
Church’s team has completed the cellular development phase of their research and is now prepared to move forward with developing the complete embryo. That means things could start getting a little more tricky for the scientists.
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“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” Church said. “We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.”
Church’s team initially estimated they would need to make 15 edits to allow for the embryo to be viable and exhibit the traits they desire. They have since increased the number of edits to 45.
Of course the prospect of reintroducing a long-extinct animal, especially one the size of a woolly mammoth, raises several practical and ethical concerns. Church and his team hope that these concerns will be assuaged by the fact that their experiment has a very practical, and some may even say vital, goal: They hope that reintroducing the mammoths, or their hybrid test-tube cousins at least, will help to stave off climate change.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” Church said of woolly mammoths. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
It is uncertain how effective the mammoths would be in these efforts, or how many of them would need to be reintroduced, but at this point perhaps every little bit helps.
[Featured image by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]