Could woolly mammoths be gracing the planet once more?

A group of researchers at Harvard have announced an objective that’s ostensibly easy to get on board with: the resurrection of the famous woolly mammoth, venerated in popular culture thanks to Ice Age’s lovable ‘Manny’. The team made the announcement ahead of the annual summit of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, stating their intentions to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Could woolly mammoths be gracing the planet once more?

In reality, the creatures would be more like a “hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo”, Professor George Church, guest speaker at the Boston conference, told The Guardian. “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.” CRISPR would help make this come to fruition, splicing genetic traits into the creature, among which would include small ears, long shaggy hair, cold-adapted blood and plenty of fat.

For now, the team has halted at the cell stage, saying that, alas, it will be years until the mammoths will be allowed to or even capable of growing into fully-fledged adults. Nonetheless, the researchers have begun the process of creating embryos, a decisive move forward.

Prof Church has suggested that the genetic modifications being made to the elephant genome could help to quell the endangerment of the Asian elephant, preserving the magnificent creatures, albeit in an altered form. Meanwhile, others in the industry have challenged him on ethical grounds; Matthew Cobb, zoology professor at the University of Manchester, said: “The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue – the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”

Not wanting to put the reproductive capacity of an already endangered species at risk, Church stipulated that the hybrid animals would be grown ex-vivo (outside a living body) in an artificial womb. “We’re testing the growth of mice ex-vivo. There are experiments in the literature from the 1980s but there hasn’t been much interest for a while,” he said, “Today we’ve got a whole new set of technology and we’re taking a fresh look at it.”

Gene-editing and the ethical problems it evokes will be one of the primary topics for discussion at the upcoming AAAS conference in Boston. If the Harvard team manage to allay their peers’ reservations, it will signal a – forgive me – mammoth leap forward in the realms of genetic modification.

Image: William Hartman, used under Creative Commons.

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