The Woolly mammoth, an iconic species ingrained in both Earth’s geological history and modern popular culture, went completely extinct 4,000 years ago, having survived so long due to a small population of mammoths that was separated from the others and left stranded on a remote Arctic island. This island, known as Wrangel Island, was home to the last living members of a once abundant species that had thrived in the frigid climate that defined the last Ice Age. Aside from these unlikely survivors, the majority of mainland Woolly mammoths died out 10,000 years ago. In their prime, mammoth species were spread out across northern Asia, Europe, and North America, spanning an impressive range of 33,301,000 sq. km—second only to the bison in geographic distribution. Yet perhaps what currently distinguishes mammoths most from other extinct species is the existence of a movement working to bring them back.
The Woolly Mammoth Revival Project is an initiative led by Harvard scientist George Church, and is primarily funded by Revive and Restore, a wildlife conservation organization. Church, a renowned geneticist, aims to bring a different version of the mammoth back, one that is in no way identical to its original predecessors. Cloning the mammoth as a means of de-extinction remains physically impossible as of now, since it requires the availability of intact, unfragmented DNA. Such a sample has never been recovered from frozen mammoth fossils and most likely does not exist, invalidating the notion that a true Woolly mammoth will ever be able to walk the tundras again.
Rather, through the use of advanced genetic editing technologies, Church and his team are integrating mammoth genes into the genome of it’s closest living relative—the Asian elephant—creating in essence a hybrid creature that closely resembles both species. Church has already successfully inserted at least 14 genes that code for essential mammoth traits, such as their famous long-haired coat, into the Asian elephant genome. If the lab is able to accomplish this with the remaining genes deemed necessary to create a mammoth-resembling organism able to withstand icy conditions, the science will be able to progress to the next challenging phase. To physically birth the revised mammoth into existence, this edited genome must be inserted into an Asian elephant embryo. Once this is accomplished, the embryo can be placed into the womb of a living female Asian elephant and proceed to hopefully become a fully developed fetus. This process is temperamental: genetically edited offspring may not live for more than a few minutes. If achieved, though, it would represent an enormous victory for conservation biologists and geneticists.
The case to bring back the Woolly mammoth is nuanced and controversial, with scientists making arguments both for and against the revolutionary idea. Perhaps the most compelling case advocating for the de-extinction of the mammoth is the potential they have to combat climate change. In their prime, mammoths occupied a large expanse known as the mammoth steppe, a biome that was as fertile and productive as the African savannahs are today. This was largely due to the high populations of herbivorous grazers that harvested the grasslands and allowed for a quick turnover of nutrients. The migration of humans into these once secluded and rich areas caused the reduction of certain animal populations (such as the Woolly mammoth), resulting in permanent ecological change and the transformation of the grasslands into the now infertile Arctic tundra. Scientists argue that this environmental process is reversible with the reintroduction of grazers, like mammoths and bison. High populations of grazers would stimulate the development of fertile grasslands that are able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere much more efficiently than the tundra as it exists now. Additionally, grazing activity could prevent the degradation of permafrost by destroying the heat-insulating layer that covers the ground. This would greatly reduce carbon emissions caused by the climate-change-induced thawing of permafrost, which is one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emission on Earth.
The tangible benefits of mammoth herds in the tundra—which are by no means a certainty—could take a hundred years to achieve, if not more. Generating an entire mammoth population that could make any substantial changes to the environment would be an undertaking that would last generations. Despite mammoths being considered highly adaptable and resilient from what is known about them in their fossil record, the ecosystem in which they would theoretically be placed is strikingly different from the grasslands in which the species originally lived. As a result of this variability, reintroduction might be much more complicated and damaging than expected. Some scientists argue that instead of pouring millions of dollars into funding the revival of a now extinct species, the same energy should be devoted to the preservation of existing vulnerable populations—a monumental but important task.
While it would be breathtaking to see mammoths roam the frozen tundras once more, this possibility is still decades away. The more immediate representation of the phenomenon of de-extinction would be the birth of a mammal-elephant hybrid, marking a breakthrough in gene-editing capabilities and showing the world that the possibilities of science are truly endless.
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