Ten thousand years after woolly mammoths vanished from the face of the Earth, scientists are embarking on an ambitious project to bring the beasts back to the Arctic tundra. The prospect of recreating mammoths and returning them to the wild has been discussed – seriously at times – for more than a decade, but on Monday researchers announced fresh funding they believe could make their dream a reality.
The boost comes in the form of $15m (£11m) raised by the bioscience and genetics company Colossal, co-founded by Ben Lamm, a tech and software entrepreneur, and George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has pioneered new approaches to gene editing.
The scientists have set their initial sights on creating an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA. The starting point for the project involves taking skin cells from Asian elephants, which are threatened with extinction, and reprogramming them into more versatile stem cells that carry mammoth DNA. The particular genes that are responsible for mammoth hair, insulating fat layers and other cold climate adaptions are identified by comparing mammoth genomes extracted from animals recovered from the permafrost with those from the related Asian elephants. These embryos would then be carried to term in a surrogate mother or potentially in an artificial womb. If all goes to plan – and the hurdles are far from trivial – the researchers hope to have their first set of calves in six years.
[...] The project is framed as an effort to help conserve Asian elephants by equipping them with traits that allow them to thrive in vast stretches of the Arctic known as the mammoth steppe. But the scientists also believe introducing herds of elephant-mammoth hybrids to the Arctic tundra may help restore the degraded habitat and combat some of the impacts of the climate crisis. For example, by knocking down trees, the beasts might help to restore the former Arctic grasslands.
Previously: Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced
Resurrection of the Woolly Mammoth Could Begin in Two Years
Analysis Supports Conservation of Existing Species Rather Than De-Extinction of Mammoths
Mammoth DNA Activates Briefly in Mouse Eggs
« Apple Can No Longer Force Developers to Use In-App Purchasing, Judge Rules | Leaked Documents Reveal the Special Rules Facebook Uses for 5.8M VIPs »
An international team of scientists led by Dr. Love Dalén at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm has published [abstract] the complete genome sequences of two woolly mammoths. Their analysis found evidence of inbreeding among the final population of mammoths on Wrangel Island, as well as a genetic bottleneck around 300,000 years ago, before the arrival of modern humans in the region. Woolly mammoths went extinct around 4,000 years ago, and although Dr. Dalén's team is not attempting to revive the mammoth, they aren't dismissing the possibility:
Dr Love Dalén, at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, told BBC News that the first ever publication of the full DNA sequence of the mammoth could help those trying to bring the creature back to life.
"It would be a lot of fun (in principle) to see a living mammoth, to see how it behaves and how it moves," he said.
But he would rather his research was not used to this end.
"It seems to me that trying this out might lead to suffering for female elephants and that would not be ethically justifiable."
Dr Dalén and the international group of researchers he is collaborating with are not attempting to resurrect the mammoth. But the Long Now Foundation, an organisation based in San Francisco, claims that it is. Now, with the publication of the complete mammoth genome, it could be a step closer to achieving its aim. On its website, the foundation says its ultimate goal is "to produce new mammoths that are capable of repopulating the vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America."
Scientists led by George Church claim that they are about two years away from beginning a de-extinction of the woolly mammoth. They aim to produce a hybrid mammoth-elephant embryo with many spliced-in mammoth traits:
The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.
Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the "de-extinction" effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. "Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo," said Prof George Church. "Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We're not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years."
The creature, sometimes referred to as a "mammophant", would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr. Until now, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.
"We're working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab," said Church. Since starting the project in 2015 the researchers have increased the number of "edits" where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45. "We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected," he said.
Previously: Engineering the Perfect Baby
Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced
St. Paul Island Mammoths Died of Thirst 5,600 Years Ago
OBQ: [How Much] Should We Bioengineer Animals to Live in Our Damaged World?
Following recent talk of resurrecting the woolly mammoth, a new analysis has poured cold water on the idea of de-extinction efforts, recommending that funding go to conservation efforts instead:
Ten days ago, science news media outlets around the world reported that a Harvard University–led team was on the verge of resurrecting the wooly mammoth. Although many articles oversold the findings, the concept of de-extinction—bringing extinct animals back to life through genetic engineering—is beginning to move from the realm of science fiction to reality. Now, a new analysis of the economics suggests that our limited conservation funding would be better spent elsewhere.
"The conversation thus far has been focused on whether or not we can do this. Now, we are progressing toward the: 'Holy crap, we can—so should we?' phase," says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the study. "It is like we've just about put the last stiches in [Frankenstein's monster], and there is this moment of pause as we consider whether it is actually a good idea to flip the switch and electrify the thing to life."
[...] the results also show that if instead of focusing the money on de-extinction, one allocated it into existing conservation programs for living species, we would see a much bigger increase in biodiversity—roughly two to eight times more species saved. In other words, the money would be better spent elsewhere to prevent existing species from going extinct in the first place [DOI: 10.1038/s41559-016-0053] [DX], the team reports today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
[article abstract not yet available]
If you remember in 2017, it was predicted Resurrection of the Woolly Mammoth Could Begin in Two Years.
Well it's 2019, and now that it is two years later... and so they
have, of course, accomplished nothing of the sort are working on it.
[...] researchers extracted cells from Yuka, a woolly mammoth mummy (Mammuthus primigenius) whose remains were discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2011. Then, the scientists recovered the least-damaged nuclei (structures that contain genetic material) from each cell and popped the nuclei into mouse eggs.
At first, this maneuver "activated" the mammoth chromosomes, as several biological reactions that occur before cell division actually happened within the mouse cell. But these reactions soon came to a crashing halt, probably, in part, because the mammoth DNA was severely damaged after spending 28,000 years buried in permafrost, the researchers said.
Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not part of the study, commented:
at first, the cellular machinery did try to fix damaged DNA within the chromosomes and piece together the broken bits [...] "But [the egg] can only do so much, [...] When the nuclei are badly damaged, then it's just not possible to reconstitute this to what you would need to do to actually bring it back to life."
According to Shapiro: