How scientists will resurrect mammoths and why is it needed

The company, which has received its first 15 million from several commercial sponsors, hopes to create a hybrid of a mammoth and an Asian elephant as close as possible to a real mammoth.

A group of American scientists and entrepreneurs announced plans to bring back woolly mammoths, extinct thousands of years ago. For this, scientists intend to apply genetic engineering technologies and use mammoth DNA extracted from frozen animal remains. Correspondent.net tells the details.

Populate Siberia with extinct mammoths

A group of scientists and entrepreneurs, teamed up to form a company called Colossal, announced this week their intention to use genetic methods to revive the woolly mammoth and resettle thousands of these majestic animals in the Siberian tundra.

“This is an important milestone for us. It will bring tremendous change to the world,” Harvard Medical School biologist George Church, who has led a small group of researchers in his spare time working on ways to revive mammoths, told the New York Times.

The company, which received $ 15 million in seed funding, will help Dr. Church conduct research in his laboratory. In addition, she herself will conduct experiments in her own laboratories in Boston and Dallas.

Researcher Eriona Hisolli, who previously worked at Church’s lab, will spearhead a new company to edit the DNA of the Asian elephant, adding mammoth genes that will give the reborn animal a thick coat and thick layers of fat to help it survive in the bitter cold.

Scientists hope that in a few years they will be able to reproduce the embryos of such mammoth-like elephants and eventually achieve the emergence of entire populations of these animals.

Not only scientific but also ethical issues

However, other researchers do not share Church’s optimism. Some people doubt that such a thing is possible in principle. Others fear that, if successful, Colossal will face dire ethical issues.

Is it humane to create an animal whose biology so little is known? Who will decide whether to keep them in cages or release them (many scientists point out that elephants do not tolerate captivity well, and they have no place in zoos)? And if they are still released, then what will be the consequences for the tundra ecosystem, which has long lost the habit of these giants?

“They have a ton of challenges to face along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth, to NYT.

How did the idea come about

The idea for Colossal was first presented to the public in 2013 when Church spoke about it during a speech at the National Geographic Society.

At the time, researchers were learning to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species from DNA fragments extracted from fossils. It has become possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that distinguish ancient species from their modern counterparts, and draw conclusions about how these differences in DNA cause differences in organisms.

Dr. Church is best known as an expert in reading and editing DNA. He wondered if extinct species could be effectively revived by rewriting the genes of their living relatives.

Since Asian elephants and mammoths have a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Church decided that it was possible to modify the elephant’s genome and produce something that would look and behave like a mammoth.

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Why revive mammoths

He argues that it is not just a matter of scientific curiosity. Reborn woolly mammoths can help the environment. Today, the tundra in Siberia and North America, where these animals once grazed, is rapidly warming and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Hypothetically, mammoths can solve this problem,” Church said in his speech.

Today the tundra is dominated by mosses. But when woolly mammoths lived there, it was mostly meadows and pastures. Some scientists argue that woolly mammoths were the “engineers” of the ecosystem and maintained grasslands and rangelands by killing mosses, breaking trees, and fertilizing the soil with their excrement.

Russian ecologists brought bison and some other species to the Siberian reserve, which they called the Pleistocene Park, hoping that they would again turn the tundra into meadows.

Church argues that revived woolly mammoths will be able to do this much more effectively. Reclaimed grasslands will inhibit soil thawing and erosion, he says, and may even hinder carbon dioxide emissions.

How will a mammoth embryo be created?

By analyzing the fossilized genomes of woolly mammoths, Dr. Hisolli and colleagues have compiled a list of the most important differences between them and elephants. They focused on 60 genes, as experiments revealed that they are very important for the distinctive characteristics of mammoths, such as wool, fat and the characteristic bulging skull.

Scientists will try to create an elephant embryo with a modified genome, which will be similar to that of an ancient mammoth. To do this, they will need to remove the DNA from the elephant’s egg, replacing it with DNA like a mammoth.

But no one has ever taken an egg from an elephant. If this does not work out, Hisolli and his colleagues will try to turn the tissue of an ordinary elephant into stem cells, so that they can then be used to create an embryo in the laboratory.

At first, Church wanted to inject embryos into surrogate female elephants. But over time, he lost interest in this idea. Even if he could fertilize elephants in this way (which no one had done before), it would be unrealistic to create a whole, since he would need a lot of surrogate mothers.

Instead, Church decided to make an artificial uterus of a female mammoth, covered from the inside with tissue grown from stem cells.

“I don’t want to make bold predictions that it will be easy. But until now, everything went relatively easily. All the fabrics that we tried to obtain, we received. Or rather, we received a recipe for their manufacture,” the scientist said.

This idea has precedents. Scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for example, have created a sealed bag in which a lamb embryo can be in the womb for four weeks. But Colossal will have to create a large enough artificial uterus, in which the embryo will stay for about two years, reaching 90 kilograms in weight.

“We hope and we are confident that this will result in new technologies that will allow us to create separate commercial divisions on their basis. But in the near future, we are focused on developing technologies that will not only speed up the process of reviving the mammoth, but will also allow us to bring it back. into the wild, “Lamm said.

How mammoths will help endangered species

Dr. Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz is skeptical about the company’s prospects.

“I have a feeling that the creation of a mammoth is still very far away,” she said. Nevertheless, she welcomes the creation of the company and hopes that it will achieve scientific advances that will help the species that are not yet extinct, but are on the verge of extinction.

For example, scientists will be able to leverage Colossal’s expertise to save endangered species from disease by equipping them with genes that provide resistance to pathogens. Other species could be enriched with genes that can better cope with the heat and drought caused by climate change.

“I am concerned about the rate of climate change and the rate of degradation of the natural habitat of animals. They are such that evolution will not be able to save many of today’s species. We need to intervene even more actively,” said Dr. Shapiro.

Based on materials: Inosmi

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