Bringing extinct creatures back to life is almost the lifeblood of science fiction. At its most dangerous, think Jurassic Park and its dinosaur stable.
Advances in genetics, however, are making the resurrection of lost animals a real possibility.
Scientists have cloned endangered animals, for example, and can sequence DNA extracted from the bones and carcasses of animals that have long since ceased to exist.
Now, geneticists—namely those who dedicate themselves to genetics—led by the George Church of Harvard Medical School, plan to bring the furry mammoth, which disappeared 4,000 years ago, back to life.
The efforts received a big boost this Monday (13) with the announcement of an investment of US$ 15 million. With the input, scientists envision a future where the tusked ice-age giant will be restored to its habitat.
Advocates say bringing back the mammoth in an altered form could help restore the fragile arctic tundra ecosystem, combat the climate crisis and preserve the threatened Asian elephant, for whom the woolly mammoth – or woolly, as it is also called – is more closely related. However, it is a bold plan fraught with ethical issues.
The goal is not to clone a mammoth — the DNA that scientists have been able to extract from the woolly mammoth remains frozen in the permafrost it is very fragmented and degraded—but to create, through genetic engineering, a living, walking mammoth elephant hybrid that would be visually indistinguishable from its extinct predecessor.
“Our goal is to have our first calves in the next four to six years,” said technology entrepreneur Ben Lamm, who with Church founded Colossal, a bioscience and genetics company to support the project.
‘Now we can really do this’
The new investment and focus brought by Lamm and his investors represents a big step forward, said Church, Professor Robert Winthrop of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.
“Until 2021, it was kind of a side project, frankly. But now we can really do it,” Church said. “That [o dinheiro investido] will change everything.”
Church has been at the forefront of genomics, including using CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing tool described as a rewrite of the code of life to alter the characteristics of living species.
One of his famous works is to create pigs whose organs are compatible with the human body. The project could one day make a kidney for a patient who needs a transplant come from a pig.
“We had to make a lot of changes [genéticas]. So far there have been 42 to make them compatible with humans. And in that case, we have very healthy pigs that are breeding and donating organs for preclinical testing at Massachusetts General Hospital,” he said.
“With the elephant, it’s a different goal, but it’s a similar number of changes.”
According to Church, the research team analyzed the genomes of 23 living species of extinct elephants and mammoths. Scientists believe they will need to simultaneously program “more than 50 changes” in the Asian elephant’s genetic code to give it the traits it needs to survive and thrive in the Arctic.
Those features include a four-inch layer of insulating fat, five different types of tousled hair, including some that reach three feet in length, and smaller ears that will help the hybrid tolerate the cold, Church said.
The team also plans to try to make modifications so that the animal does not have fangs, so that it is not targeted by ivory hunters.
Once a cell with these and other characteristics is successfully programmed, Church plans to use an artificial uterus to pass from embryo to baby — something that takes 22 months for living elephants. However, this technology is far from established, and Church said he has not ruled out the use of live elephants as substitutes.
“The editing, I think, will go well. We have a lot of experience with this, I think, making artificial uteri is not guaranteed. It’s one of the few things that isn’t pure engineering, maybe there’s a little bit of science there too, which always increases uncertainty and lead time,” he said.
Love Dalén, professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, who works with the evolution of mammoths, believes that there is scientific value in the work carried out by Church and his team, especially with regard to the conservation of endangered species that have genetic diseases or a lack of genetic variation as a result of inbreeding.
“If endangered species have lost genes that are important to them … the ability to put them back into endangered species, that could be very important,” said Dalén, who is not involved in the project.
“I still wonder what the main point would be. First of all, you’re not going to get a mammoth. It’s a furry elephant with some fat deposits.
“We, of course, have very few clues as to which genes make a mammoth a mammoth. We know a little bit, but we certainly don’t know close enough.”
Others say it is unethical to use live elephants as substitutes for giving birth to a genetically modified animal. Dalén described Asian mammoths and elephants as as different as humans and chimpanzees.
“Let’s say it works and there are no horrible consequences. No surrogate elephant mother dies,” said Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist and mammoth expert at the Natural History Museum in London, who is not involved in the project.
“The idea that by bringing mammoths back and putting them in the Arctic, you design the Arctic to become a better place for carbon storage. This aspect I have several problems.”
Some believe that, before their extinction, grazing animals such as mammoths, horses and bison maintained pastures in the northern part of our planet and kept the earth frozen below, trampling grass, felling trees and compacting snow.
The reintroduction of mammoths and other large mammals to these locations will help to revitalize these environments and slow down permafrost thaw and carbon release.
However, both Dalén and Herridige said there was no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it was difficult to imagine herds of cold-adapted elephants making any impact in an environment that is fighting wildfires, riddled with mud and warming faster than in anywhere else in the world.
“There is absolutely nothing that says putting mammoths out there will have any effect on climate change,” Dalén said.
Ultimately, the ultimate stated purpose of wandering mammoth herds as ecosystem engineers may not matter, and neither Herridge nor Dalén criticizes Church and Lamm for embarking on the project. Many people will be happy to pay to get close to a proxy mammoth.
“Maybe it’s fun to show them off at the zoo. I don’t have a big problem with that if they want to put them in a park somewhere and, you know, make the kids more interested in the past,” Dalén said.
There is “zero pressure” for the project to make money, Lamm said. He is betting on the effort that results in innovations that have applications in biotechnology and health.
He compared how the Apollo project made people concerned about space exploration, but it also resulted in many amazing technologies, including GPS.
“I am absolutely fascinated by this. I’m attracted to people who are technologically adventurous and it could possibly make a positive difference,” said Herridge, the mammoth specialist.