Researchers at Harvard extracted DNA from a wooly mammoth preserved in Arctic permafrost, copied fourteen genes related to its adaptation to cold, and inserted them into Asian elephant skin cells. Hurray – the cells continued to function normally – in a petri dish.
I’ve thought that bringing back the mammoth would be a stunt – immensely cool, but a stunt nonetheless. Elephants, the mammoth’s surviving relative, are intelligent animals with a complex social life. They care for one another and teach their offspring. Perhaps a mammoth infant could be adopted by a herd of elephants, and I’d definitely take a trip to see such a baby, but would it really be a mammoth in the full sense of body and behavior?
It turns out there’s a practical intermediate step possible with this research. Mammoths have a number of adaptations to cold, including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and differences in their hemoglobin. Scientists hope, eventually, to “raise hybrid elephants that could be genetically wired to thrive in colder climes — hopefully expanding their range to live at a greater remove from humans.” So resurrected mammoth DNA may help save their endangered modern cousins.
But no one can resist the thought of herds of mammoths roaming the Earth again. “The team might even try to bring back the woolly mammoth itself.”
Not everyone favors de-extinction for the wooly mammoth, in part for fear that modern elephants would be harmed in the research process or for fear of monstrous creations.
Current efforts at rewilding, recreating the lost ecosystem of the Pleistocene, meet with similar concerns – isn’t it a big enough challenge to protect the animals alive today without trying to reconstruct the past? Rewilding advocates call for existing species to be reintroduced where their ancestors once roamed – we’re trying to save grizzly bears and condors already, and horses returned to America with European conquest long ago. Rewilding would repopulate the American high plains and mountain west with cheetahs, lions, llamas, tortoises, related plant species, and – yes – elephants. With global warming underway, I doubt the Pleistocene can be recreated in the United States – maybe Canada or Siberia? Or maybe it’s a romantic dream.
Some say any available funds should go to preserving existing threatened species, but I think lack of political will is a bigger obstacle than lack of money. Perhaps retrieving animals from extinction would create public interest and dedication to save other species. I certainly want to see any research conducted ethically, but given that… wooly mammoths. It’s hard to resist the idea. What a thrill that would be.
Many outlets covered the Harvard work; for example: discovery.com is quoted above, or try Popular Science
Kate Rauner, Hanover, New Mexico, USA
Kate is a chemical and environmental engineer, and Cold War Warrior (honestly, that’s what Congress called us), who worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. Now retired on the edge of the southwest’s Gila National Forest with her husband, cats, llamas, and dog, she fights fire as a volunteer and writes science fiction novels and science inspired poetry. She also shares science news that strikes her fancy (and finds it odd to write about herself in the third person.)