Genetic Engineers Will Be Able To Bring Back The Mammoth
Scientists at University of Chicago and Penn State have completed the first comprehensive, functional analysis of the woolly mammoth genome. Research based on the mammoth genome could conceivably allow genetic engineers to bring the long extinct animal back to life. Pleistocene Park, a 16-square-kilometre reserve in northern Siberia, has been suggested as a potential location for a mammoth-themed “Jurassic World.”
The woolly mammoth, which inhabited northern Asia, Europe and North America, went extinct about 10,000 years ago
The researchers’ study has been published in Cell Reports on July 2. The paper, titled “Elephantid Genomes Reveal the Molecular Bases of Woolly Mammoth Adaptations to the Arctic,” is freely available online.
A First Step Toward Resurrecting the Mammoth
“This is by far the most comprehensive study to look at the genetic changes that make a woolly mammoth a woolly mammoth,” said study author Vincent Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago.
The researchers sequenced the nuclear genome from three Asian elephants and two woolly mammoths, and identified the genes unique to woolly mammoths. The researchers used sequence reconstruction techniques to resurrect and test the mammoth TRPV3 gene, important for adaptation to low temperatures.
“We can’t know with absolute certainty the effects of these genes unless someone resurrects a complete woolly mammoth, but we can try to infer by doing experiments in the laboratory,” Lynch said.
George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, is persuaded that genetic engineers will be able to bring back the mammoth. Using a technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 that allows genes to be easily edited, Church’s team claims to have engineered elephant cells that contain the mammoth version of 14 genes involved in cold tolerance. The work, says Church, is a preamble to editing an entire woolly mammoth genome – and perhaps even resurrecting the woolly mammoth, or at least giving an Asian elephant enough mammoth genes to survive in the Arctic.
Lynch realizes that the high-quality sequencing and analysis of woolly mammoth genomes can serve as a functional blueprint for efforts to “de-extinct” the mammoth. He said:
Eventually we’ll be technically able to do it.
In the video, Lynch says that the work is a first step toward resurrecting the woolly mammoth. However, while acknowledging the future technical possibility, Lynch has ethical qualms. “if you’re technically able to do something, should you do it?” he asks. “I personally think no. Mammoths are extinct and the environment in which they lived has changed. There are many animals on the edge of extinction that we should be helping instead.”
Images from University of Chicago and Wikimedia Commons.