Although the woolly mammoth has been extinct for over 4,000 years, professors at Harvard University have revealed that they are just two years away from recreating it using gene editing techniques.
The Harvard team will be leading the “de-extinction” process by programming woolly mammoth traits into an Asian elephant.
However, because these animals are no longer roaming the Earth, it would be impossible to create a full on woolly mammoth, so they will be creating what they call a “mammophant.” This is due the the fact that it will have some traits of a regular Asian elephant, but also have the signature shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood of the ancient beast.
“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab.
The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments. We already know about ones to do with small ears, sub-cutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.”
In order to create this new hybrid animal, scientists have been working with the controversial gene editing technique known as CRISPR. CRISPR has recently been approved to allow for use in humans in very specific circumstances, though many ethicists are concerned about the consequence.
Until now, the Harvard team has only been working on a project on a cellular level and has found that cells can continue their normal function with both elephant and mammoth DNA in them. The DNA of the mammoth has been extracted from those that have been found preserved in the Arctic.
They are looking to produce a viable woolly mammoth embryo within the next couple of years.
And while many scientists are excited about the project, others are less so. They state that it will be impossible to bring back the woolly mammoth completely, instead they will simply be creating a whole new type of elephant: the Asian elephant with woolly mammoth characteristics.
Matthew Cobb, a zoology professor at the University of Manchester, also has serious concerns about the new animal’s introduction to the animal kingdom.
“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?”
Despite the concerns, it seems we will be seeing woolly mammoth like creatures making their debut within our lifetime.