Did we learn nothing from “Jurassic Park?”
A Harvard University scientist told The Guardian this week that his team is only two years from resurrecting some traits of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct during the last ice age. The goal is to create an embryo that’s a hybrid of the woolly mammoth and its closest living relative, the Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” researcher George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.”
Church explained to HuffPost last year that the process involves retrieving DNA from mammoth remains preserved on the frozen tundra, then splicing that DNA into the genome of an Asian elephant. The species are so closely related that they would be able to breed if both were alive today, Church noted.
The project has plenty of critics, including conservationists who call it a gimmick and say the idea of “de-extinction” diverts attention from efforts to conserve species that are still alive. Church, for his part, has said his efforts would improve conservation of endangered Asian elephants, engineering them to be better adapted to cold — thus allowing them to live in expanded territory.
“I call them cold-resistant Asian elephants,” Church told HuffPost in a 2016 interview.
Church said he envisions the hybrid creatures living on the tundras of Russia and Canada, where he has argued their presence could help stave off the effects of climate change. As he wrote in Scientific American:
Mammoths could keep the region colder by: (a) eating dead grass, thus enabling the sun to reach spring grass, whose deep roots prevent erosion; (b) increasing reflected light by felling trees, which absorb sunlight; and (c) punching through insulating snow so that freezing air penetrates the soil. Poachers seem far less likely to target Arctic mammoths than African elephants.
Church and his team plan to grow the hybrid animal in an artificial womb, due to the ethical concerns of recruiting a living female elephant for the process. But some skeptics say the artificial womb scheme has its own serious shortcomings.
“Church’s team is proposing to rear the embryo in an ‘artificial womb’ which seems ambitious to say the least ― the resultant animal would have been deprived of all the pre-birth interactions with its mother,” University of Manchester professor Matthew Cobb told The Guardian.
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