A team of Harvard scientists believes they are a mere two years away from creating a hybrid embryo of the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
Through the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system, the team eyes coaxing the ancient animal’s traits out of elephant cells, developing a hybrid embryo into a fetus, and taking it to full term.
Fully a resurrecting a woolly mammoth, however, will likely take another few years.
How It Can Be Done
Geneticist George Church from Harvard University spoke ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting held in Boston this week, pointing to the “de-extinction” project.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo. 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 professor said.
The team will first add key genetic traits to the Asian elephant’s genome (thus the term “mammophant”), and these include shaggy long hair, thick fat layers, and cold-adjusted blood, according to the New Scientist. Since the project began in 2015, 45 mammoth-like DNA edits have already been spliced into the elephant genome.
“The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments,” Church told the publication.
Next, they will produce a hybrid embryo, which would actually be more like an elephant embryo that carries a number of the mammoth’s genetic traits.
Church told the Guardian that they plan to perform the entire process ex-vivo or outside a living entity, saying it would be “unreasonable” to risk female reproduction in an endangered creature such as the Asian elephant. According to some, growing a hybrid animal inside an artificial womb is impossible within the decade, but Church’s laboratory is reportedly able to incubate a mouse embryo for 10 days or around 50 percent of its gestation period.
The Asian elephant’s status as an endangered species has made some experts warn that it is impractical and even unethical to use the living creatures as surrogates for the hybrid embryo. Church defended, however, that the move can actually help revive the elephant population through an alternative means.
Cloning is a tricky affair. Dolly the sheep, for instance, was the only lamb successfully born out of 277 attempts.
The woolly mammoth roamed Earth — particularly Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America — during the last Ice Age. They disappeared around 4,000 years earlier, likely due to a mix of climate change and human hunting. The Asian elephant is their closest living kin.
Church helped devise the controversial CRISPR-Cas9 tool, which has exhibited a number of genetic engineering transformations since it was first shown in 2012. Obtained from a defense-system bacteria used for fending off viruses, the system allows cutting and pasting DNA strands with never-before-seen precision.
The ethical implications of gene editing emerged as one of the key issues at the Boston conference, where Church spoke and predicted that age reversal could be a reality in a decade as the fruit of new innovations in genetic engineering.
But should the mammoth be brought back to life in the first place?
Zoology professor Matthew Cobb explained that the mammoth being a social animal (just like the Asian elephant) can raise surprises on how the hybrid will be greeted by their living relatives.
Other researchers too worried that de-extinction efforts could actually endanger current conservation initiatives, as the knowledge that humans can always bring species back later could undermine the urgency of preventing extinctions from happening.