If you’re wondering what’s the connection between woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and global warming, it all has to do with the steppe.
Before woolly mammoths went extinct more than 4,000 years ago, these large grazers occupied a portion of northern tundra known as the “mammoth steppe.” Due to their presence there, the ecosystem was thriving, explains Harvard and MIT geneticist George Church.
These ancient elephants had an important contribution to the wellbeing of the environment, Church told LiveScience, because they “knocked down trees and allowed the cold air to hit the ground and keep the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect the sunlight in the summer.”
This allowed the soil to cool and the ecosystem to flourish, giving rise to a bounty of grasses, the geneticist points out.
However, once woolly mammoths became extinct, grasses gave way to tall trees that started to shield the environment from the cold winter winds. And, since there was no one there to trample the thick, insulating layers of winter snow, it could easily blanket the soil and keep it warm.
Although seemingly unimportant, these details are extremely significant, especially in the current context of warming temperatures.
“That fact, coupled with significantly warmer summers, accelerates the melting of the permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases that have been trapped for millennia,” notes the non-profit organization Revive & Restore, which is currently working with Church on a project called Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival.
The melting of the permafrost, which is the frozen subsoil in arctic regions, could release 1,400 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere — 43 times the amount of carbon produced last year by fossil fuels and industry, according to the International Energy Agency.
But Church believes he has found a solution to prevent this from happening. And, as you might have anticipated, the answer comes from the long-extinct woolly mammoths.
The geneticist is working on reviving their genes in order to create a “hairy army” of mammoth-elephant hybrids that could end up saving the world by bringing back the lost steppe, Outer Places reports.
This future herd of hybrids, which the news outlet proposes should be called mammophants, could be reintegrated in the tundra to rebalance the ecosystem.
“The introduction of grazers to tundra generates a nutrient cycle that allows grasses to out-compete the tundra flora, converting the ecosystem in a manner that then favors the persistence of grazers and grasses,” underlines the Revive & Restore organization.
Today’s elephants aren’t suited for this important task because they’re not equipped to deal with the cold of the steppe. But gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR, could give them a fighting chance for the benefit of us all, says Church.
His plan is to splice the genome of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) with a number of mammoth genes that would give these animals the tools to handle the cold.
“It could just be 44 genes [that] might be sufficient to make them adapted again to the cold.”
According to Outer Places, his team has already engineered a few mutations in the lab that would allow the mammoth-elephant hybrids to grow a thick coat of insulating hair and make them sturdier by increasing fat production.
The geneticist also envisions inserting a few extra genes into the animals’ DNA that would give them resistance to certain plant toxins, thereby allowing them to have an extended menu. In addition, Church is considering adding some genes that would make their tusks smaller, so that poachers would lose interest in hunting them down.
The genetic material used for the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival project comes from a small mammoth female and was preserved in the Siberian permafrost for tens of thousands of years until the animal was discovered in 2007.
The mammoth female, dubbed Lyuba, is believed to have died more than 41,000 years ago and will now serve to create a new generation of mammoth-elephant hybrids, which the team plans to grow in the lab and eventually release in the 20,000-hectare Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia.