Hacking The Wooly Mammoth

In case you can’t get enough Jurassic Park movies, you can look forward to plans a biotech company has to hybridize endangered Asian elephants with long-extinct wooly mammoths using gene splicing and other exotic techniques.

Expect a long movie, the team hopes to have calves after six years and we don’t think a theme park is in the making. The claim is that mammoth traits will help the elephants reclaim the tundra, but we can’t help but think it is just an excuse to reanimate an extinct animal. If you read popular press reports, there is some question if the ecological mission claimed by the company is realistic. However, we can’t deny it would be cool to bring an animal back from extinction — sort of.

We aren’t DNA wizards, so we only partially understand what’s being proposed. Apparently, skin cells from a modern elephant will serve as a base to accept extracted mammoth DNA. This might seem far-fetched but turns out the mammoth lived much more recently than we usually think. When they die in their natural deep-freeze environment, they are often well preserved.

Once the gene splicing is set up, a surrogate elephant will carry the embryo to term. The hope is that the improved breed would be able to further interbreed with natural species, although with the gestation and maturity times of elephants, this will be a very long time to bear fruit.

So how do you feel about it? Will we face a movie-level disaster? Will we get some lab curiosity creatures? Will it save the tundra? Let us know what you think in the comments.

DNA manipulation has gone from moon-shot-level tech to readily accessible in a very short amount of time. In particular, CRISPR, changes everything and is both exciting and scary on what it puts in the hands of nearly anyone.

19 thoughts on “Hacking The Wooly Mammoth

  1. Why such an out of the way animal to revive. We have 6 complete sets of DNA of the giant Moa birds. Ostrich eggs ought to be easier than elephants. I want drumstick round steaks! Just big chickens like dinosaurs. They died out during wooden ships exploring the Pacific but also due to “native” people as well. Rats, they ended it. Reports then say they tasted better by far than dodo birds.

    Oh if you like wings, sorry. They didn’t have any.

  2. It should be noted that this has been tried _many_ times in the past, by many different companies, as soon as we learned how to substitute nuclear material, and several have even claimed to have gotten a dividing blastocyst. None have successfully implanted in elephants.
    AFAIK splicing is even harder than full scale nucleus swaps because then you have no idea if you’ve messed up the regulatory genes or the sequence in which they’re expressed, which has a huge and very poorly characterized effect on the developing fetus.

  3. This is just a PR stunt to raise money. Those who invested on this project have no clue about how difficult and far far away the goal is. This project might advance research a bit, but that’s it. No wooly mammoth will be born anytime soon. By the time this might happen, the other elephant will be gone extinct.

    1. “This project might advance research a bit”

      Then I don’t see a problem.

      “Those who invested on this project…”

      If someone is choosing between paying their bills and putting food on the table vs contributing to this project then I think we can all probably agree which they should chose. Otherwise, see above.

  4. What takes them so long? If I were in the field I would have done millions of automated experiences, even by small chance I would have gotten 10 mammuts or monsters. No need for ethics here.

  5. I’m thinking of what is known as a “Generic Tiger”.
    For many years, different breeds of tigers have been cross bred in captivity, and the result is a tainted gene pool for those trying to preserve endangered breeds.

    So this experiment/PR stunt could only result in an animal that is neither Asian elephant or Wooly Mammoth.

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