New bioscience company Colossal has raised $ 15 million to revive woolly mammoths and restore them to the Arctic tundra. Scientists say the first calves to get involved in the fight against climate change could come in six years.
It has been suggested in the past that prehistoric mammals could be cloned based on DNA obtained from their remains and thus revived. What is more, there have already been attempts to do so, and cloning of extinct animals has also begun.
The new proposal is part of wider “de-extinction” or “rewilding” efforts that attempt to reintroduce extinct animal species in their natural habitats. According to the initiators, the emerging technology could help restore damaged ecosystems, slowing down or even halting the effects of climate change.
Colossal chief executive and co-founder Ben Lamm said they planned to “harness the power” of de-extinction technology to “rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future”.
“In addition to bringing back ancient extinct species like the woolly mammoth, we will be able to leverage our technologies to help preserve critically endangered species,” Mr Lamm said in a statement.
In essence, the team plans to create embryos under laboratory conditions that carry some of the mammoth DNA. As a first step, they would take samples from Asian elephants – which are now close to extinction and are distant relatives of mammoths – and “reprogram” them in such a way that the mammoth’s genome becomes part of them.
They will primarily transplant those genes that were responsible for the mammoth’s hair, adipose tissues, and adaptation to cold climates in general. The embryos thus created would then be planted in a female elephant or an artificial uterus.
If everything progresses as planned, the first mammoth-elephant calves could be born within six years.
“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees,” Colossal co-founder George Church told The Guardian.
The team believes introducing herds of elephant-mammoth hybrids to the Arctic tundra could help restore the degraded habitat and mitigate some of the impacts of the climate crisis. For instance, by knocking down trees, the animals might help to restore the former vast Arctic grasslands.
Not all scientists agree, however. “My personal thinking is that the justifications given – the idea that you could geoengineer the Arctic environment using a herd of mammoths – isn’t plausible,” said Dr Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum.
“The scale at which you’d have to do this experiment is enormous. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths which each take 22 months to gestate and 30 years to grow to maturity.”
Whether Asian elephants would want to breed with the hybrids is also a question. “We might have to give them a little shave,” said Church.
Gareth Phoenix, professor of plant and global change ecology at the University of Sheffield, said: “While we do need a multitude of different approaches to stop climate change, we also need to initiate solutions responsibly to avoid unintended damaging consequences. That’s a huge challenge in the vast Arctic where you have different ecosystems existing under different environmental conditions.
“For instance, mammoths are proposed as a solution to help stop permafrost thaw because they will remove trees, trample and compact the ground and convert landscapes to grassland, which can help keep the ground cool. However, we know in the forested Arctic regions that trees and moss cover can be critical in protecting permafrost, so removing the trees and trampling the moss would be the last thing you’d want to do.”
Is it a good idea then, after all? Well, you decide.