As CNN recently reported, a team of scientists led by George Church of Harvard Medical School has received $15 million in funding for a project to “bring back” the extinct woolly mammoth. This huge, shaggy cousin of the elephant roamed the Ice Age world but became extinct thousands of years ago. This “extinction” project would use gene-editing technology to splice together thousands of woolly mammoth genes, preserved from the Arctic cold, and combine them with genes from Asian elephants to create a hybrid species with woolly mammoth characteristics.

Experts suggest that the resurrection of woolly mammoths may help reduce the rate of carbon release from the Arctic soil, helping to control global warming thanks to their grazing activities, such as trampling grass as these magnificent giants do. . But how realistic is this plan and will it come true in our lifetime? Let’s find out.

Welcome to the Pleistocene Park

The idea of ​​de-extinction isn’t new—it got the Hollywood treatment in Jurassic Park, for example. In light of that, it’s easy to imagine the scariest ways the woolly mammoth’s resurrection could go awry, like an enraged neo-mammoth attacking a tour bus. But are there more subtle complications we need to worry about?

Strictly speaking, a woolly mammoth resurrection is not currently possible. As CNN noted, the last woolly mammoths went extinct nearly 4,000 years ago. While arctic conditions have preserved large amounts of their genetic material, what we have is too degraded to allow direct cloning of a mammoth. Instead, the preserved genetic material would be spliced ​​with Asian elephant genes to produce a hybridized animal, according to NPR.

Creating a hybrid animal

This hybrid referred to as the “mammophant” would look and behave like the woolly mammoth; however, it will be something completely new, and with that comes caution. Some of the differences between the mammoths and the original woolly mammoths are intentional: the new specimens would be tuskless to minimize the risk of poachers killing them for ivory.

Other critics note that there is no evidence that mammophant herds would have any real impact on Arctic ecosystems and climate change. In fact, mammoths may have gone extinct in the first place because climate change at the end of the ice age eliminated the habitat and ecosystems they relied on to survive. Mammophants could immediately become an endangered species in a world that now lacks the environments where woolly mammoths once thrived.

The genetic challenges ahead

As Science magazine reports, genetic manipulation experiments with a much less spectacular extinct mammal suggest we’re still a long way from being able to achieve a woolly mammoth resurrection: The Christmas Island rat went extinct around 1908, and well-preserved genetic material was available, but even after repeated sequencing using the closely related Norway rat as a reference, the researchers found that about 5 percent of the Christmas Island rat genome was still missing.

The only real way to know the “expression” of a gene, how it shapes an animal’s body or behavior, is to see it in action. Many layers of uncertainty stand between us and the reality that woolly mammoths once embodied. In short, a woolly mammoth resurrection is a difficult and uncertain project at best. It raises complex practical and ethical questions and may not even be possible.

That said, observing a woolly mammoth or even a mammoth living in the wild would certainly be great.

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