Woolly mammoths walked on Earth during the last Ice Age. Due to a combination of several factors such as climate change and hunting by humans, however, the animals went extinct about 4,000 years ago.
Fossils and well-preserved remains of the woolly mammoth give researchers idea about their characteristics but now, a team of scientists claim they could create a hybrid of the animal. George Church of Harvard University, the team's leader, announced this week that they are close to creating a mammoth-elephant embryo in as little as within two years.
Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system, researchers plan to coax the now-extinct animal's traits out of elephant cells. The researchers want to develop a hybrid embryo into a fetus and take it to full term.
The resulting creature called "mammophant," would be part elephant with the distinct traits of the mammoth such as shaggy hair, small ears, subcutaneous fat and blood that would allow it to survive freezing temperatures.
Although there are concerns regarding the ethics of the procedure, scientists have said that there are associated benefits that could go beyond getting the chance to see an extinct creature. Church said that the reintroduction of the woolly mammoth may even mitigate climate change.
How Mammophants May Help Mitigate Climate Change
The melting of the permafrost is known to contribute to climate change. Microbes devour the organic materials underneath the melting permafrost releasing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent that carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.
Back during the Ice Age, the mammoths helped nurture the grasslands and suppress the growth of forests in the arctic. When they disappeared, the grasslands became covered by forest and tundra, which insulate and keep the ground below warmer relative to the winter temperature above.
"They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in," Church said. "In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow."
An earlier study has already shown how Ice Age animals like the woolly mammoth can help mitigate climate change.
Russian scientist Sergey Zimov and colleagues recreated the ecosystem during the Ice Age by setting up a Siberian reserve for wild horses, bison and ox called "Pleistocene Park." The researchers found that during winter when the air temperature was -40°C, snow-covered ground remained relatively warm at -5 °C but in places where the animals trampled down the snow, the ground temperature was -30°C.
Researchers said that reintroducing the woolly mammoths, or at least something similar to mammoths, to the tundra would help revive ancient grassland, which in turn can help slow down the thawing of the permafrost and prevent the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"With lots of herbivores present, much of the wintertime snow would be trampled, exposing the ground to colder temperatures that prevent ice from melting," Zimov said. "All of this suggests that reconstructed grassland ecosystems, such as the ones we are working on in Pleistocene Park, could prevent permafrost from thawing and thereby mitigate some negative consequences of climate warming."