Climate change: scientists who want to "resurrect" mammoths to save the planet.
Can Woolly Mammoths Live Again on Earth? This has been proposed by a group of scientists who have already received US $ 15 million to achieve the task.
The Colossal company seeks to develop genetic engineering technologies with that budget to create a hybrid between the mammoth and the Asian elephant, getting as close as possible to the mammoths that once inhabited our planet. Once this objective has been achieved, the next step would be to populate parts of Siberia with these animals, seeking environmental balance.
"That will make a difference in the world," said biologist George Church, from Harvard University School of Medicine, in the United States, in an interview with the American newspaper The New York Times.
For the past eight years, Church has spent much of his time managing the project with other idea enthusiasts. The starting point of his work is the genetic material of frozen remains of mammoths that died many millennia ago. But some oppose the idea, citing ethical problems in rescuing giant animals from extinction. He also worries about the unpredictability of how these mammoths would behave on Earth today.
"There are so many problems that you will encounter along the way," Beth Shapiro, a paleo-geneticist at the University of California, also told The New York Times.
Origin of the idea:
The idea of bringing the woolly mammoths back was first voiced by Church in 2013. At the time, the researchers were studying fragments of DNA found in fossils to reconstruct genomes of extinct species. How were the desperate final days of the last mammoth on Earth and other facts about his sad life. Church, who studies new ways to read and edit DNA, wondered: is it possible to revive an extinct species by adapting the genome of a relative that exists today? He considered mammoths the best candidates because they are close ancestors to Asian elephants - they share a common ancestor that lived about 6 million years ago. Also, mammoth DNA can be easily found in Siberia.
The biologist explains that mammoths can also help restore ecological balance: global warming has caused temperatures to rise in the tundra of Siberia and North America, which has generated an accelerated release of large volumes of carbon dioxide. In today's Siberian tundra, most of it is moss, but in mammoth times, there were grasses. Biologists believe that the mammoth was a guardian of this ecosystem, maintaining grasses, clearing moss, breaking down trees, and leaving behind abundant droppings that fertilized the soil. If these animals were to return, they argue that all of this could be recovered and contain carbon dioxide emissions.
Climate change: the worrying increase in days of more than 50ºC (and the unprecedented challenges it represents for life on Earth) The scientist's initial ideas caught the attention of journalists, but not investors; At first, he managed to raise just $ 100,000 for his research. "Honestly, he intended to work at a slow pace," Church said. But in 2019, he met Ben Lamm, founder of the Texas AI Hypergiant company. When reading news about the project, he became interested in helping rescue the giant animal. "After spending a day in the lab and spending a lot of time with George, we were very excited," remembers Lamm, who from then on started creating the Colossal company.
Two "resurrection" technologies:
Extinct animals can be brought back to life in two ways: cloning and genetic engineering. The first method is well known from the example of Dolly the sheep, cloned in 1997. In this process, the DNA of one animal is injected into the fertilized egg of another donor animal, and then the egg is implanted into a "surrogate mother." This method has already been tested with the bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex officially declared extinct in 2000. Three years after its disappearance from the face of the Earth, the animal's frozen skin was extracted and its DNA cloned. A goat as a surrogate mother gave birth to an ibex, the first time an extinct species was resurrected.
Unfortunately, it was also the first case of double extinction, as it only lived for 7 minutes. The ever-closer possibility of cloning extinct animal species. Many well-preserved remains of mammoths in the Siberian permafrost, but their DNA is often damaged due to the long freezing time.
Scientists had already deciphered the mammoth genome but have not obtained the complete genetic chain as it was when the animal existed. This is where the second resurrection method can come in handy, the so-called CRISPR gene-editing technology. The specific genes that allowed mammoths to survive in high latitudes are inserted into the genome of their closest living relative, the Asian elephant. The modified genome is then implanted into a fertilized elephant egg, infused into a surrogate elephant mother. From there, a hybrid of elephant and mammoth is expected to be born.
Of course, there are significant difficulties, such as that scientists do not know (precisely) which genes are needed to survive in the Arctic. They know that the animal must be covered in fur, have an oval skull and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, but everything else is anyone's guess.
Currently, almost a million species of plants and animals are in danger of extinction. According to Lamm, if the Colossal project is successful, it will pave the way for various species' "genetic salvation." It refers to increasing the genetic diversity of an endangered species through cloning or genetic engineering.
Lamm says the mammoth project is a kind of "clinical trial." Even if this giant does not "return" to Earth, technologies will develop along the way to prevent species from going extinct. And these will be licensed and marketed (after all, we are talking about a company, not a charity). Therefore, the project to resurrect the mammoth can be seen as a kind of incubator for genetic engineering and intellectual property development, which is probably easier than seeing a live woolly mammoth being born.