The race is on to see who brings back the Woolly Mammoth first
Maybe extinction isn’t forever.
At least, that’s the hope of two teams of scientists on opposite ends of the Earth as they race to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth.
In the U.S., there’s geneticist George Church and his team of young scientists at Harvard Medical Schoool. In South Korea, there’s the controversial Sooam Biotech cloning lab, the only lab in the world that makes clones — genetically identical copies — of its customers’ pet dogs.
To bring the beast back from the dead, the teams must use a process called reproductive cloning, in which they’ll implant the genetic code of the mammoth into an empty elephant embryo, place that embryo into the uterus of a living mommy, and then allow the modern elephant to give birth to its own ancient ancestor.
However, both teams face the same major complication — they need mammoth DNA — and they have very different strategies for how to get it. The Koreans hope to find it. The Americans hope to create it.
Although the Ice Age creatures went extinct about 4,000 years ago, frozen mammoths are now being pulled from the Arctic ice in remarkably pristine conditions. In 2013, Russian scientists discovered a mammoth in Siberia essentially flash frozen at the time of its death, filled with liquid blood.
The scientists at Sooam Biotech in South Korea believe that in one of those frozen mammoths, they may be able to find perfectly preserved DNA.
“That is never going to happen,” says Dr. Vincent Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. He rephrases, “The chances are almost impossible,” after admitting one should never say never in the scientific community.
“Even if a mammoth is frozen the moment of its death, damage and decay occur over time,” Lynch explains. “It’s like when you put hamburgers in the freezer. When you thaw them out a year later, they’re not the same ... They taste awful.”
Take this hamburger analogy, and multiply it by tens of thousands of years. After all that time, the odds that an ancient mammoth has entirely intact DNA are about equal to the odds that an ancient hamburger still tastes delicious.
It’s so unlikely, American scientists believe, that the only chance of cloning the mammoth is by designing the DNA themselves. With a genetic cut-and-paste tool called CRISPR — an innovation that is already combating aging, destroying diseases, and even allowing parents to create “designer babies” — George Church and his Harvard team plan to edit the DNA of the modern Asian elephant, whose genome is 99 percent similar to the mammoth’s, until they’ve essentially re-created mammoth DNA. However, 99 percent is not as close as it seems.
“You can make the minimal number of edits: it has to have long hair and has to be able to live in the cold. But then, you have to ask yourself, do you have a woolly mammoth or do you have Asian elephant with long hair that can survive the cold?” Dr. Lynch explains. “If you really want a woolly mammoth, you need to implement every single change in the DNA, which means millions of differences.”
“These animals would not be mammoths. Mammoths will remain extinct,” says Dr. Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and author of the book, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.”
Despite all the ethical and ecological risks of bringing these beasts to life — including concerns that cloning mistakes could result in deformed elephants, or worries about where to put this potentially dangerous herd of prehistoric behemoths — Dr. Shapiro believes de-extinction efforts like the mammoth’s must go on, if not to revive disappeared species, then to prevent them from disappearing in the first place.
“It is, in my opinion,” she adds, “far riskier not to follow the science and see where it might lead.”