(CNN) — Reviving extinct creatures is the lifeblood of science fiction. At its most tantalizing, consider Jurassic Park and its block of dinosaurs.
However, advances in genetics are making the resurrection of extinct animals a tangible possibility. Scientists have already cloned endangered animals, and they can sequence DNA extracted from the bones and corpses of long-extinct animals.
In this sense, geneticists led by George Church, of Harvard Medical School, intend to bring back to life the woolly mammoth, which disappeared 4,000 years ago, imagining a future in which the giant with fangs of the Ice Age is returned to their natural habitat.
These efforts received a major boost Monday with the announcement of a $ 15 million investment.
The goal: to create a living hybrid of elephant and mammoth
Proponents claim that bringing the mammoth back in a modified form could help restore the fragile Arctic tundra ecosystem, combat the climate crisis, and preserve the endangered Asian elephant, with which the woolly mammoth is most closely related. . Nonetheless, it is a bold plan and fraught with ethical issues.
The goal is not to clone a mammoth – the DNA that scientists have managed to extract from the remains of woolly mammoths frozen in the permafrost is too fragmented and degraded – but to create, through genetic engineering, a living hybrid of elephant and mammoth that walks and make it visually indistinguishable from its extinct predecessor.
“Our goal is to have the first offspring in the next four to six years,” says tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm, who along with Church co-founded Colossal, a bioscience and genetics company to support the project.
Resurrect the mammoth? “Now we can really do it”
The recent investment and new approach by Lamm and his investors is a big step forward, says Church, the Robert Winthrop professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
“Until 2021, it has been a project on the back burner, frankly … But now we can really do it,” Church said. “This is going to change everything.”
Church has been at the forefront of genomics, including the use of CRISPR, the revolutionary gene editing tool that is described as a rewriting of the code of life, to alter the characteristics of living species. His work creating pigs whose organs are compatible with the human body means that a kidney for a patient in desperate need of a transplant could one day come from a pig.
“We had to make a lot of (genetic) changes, 42 so far to make them compatible with humans. And in that case we have very healthy pigs that reproduce and donate organs for preclinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital,” he explained.
“With the elephant it is a different goal, but it is a similar number of changes,” he added.
More than 50 changes in the genetic code of the Asian elephant
The research team has analyzed the genomes of 23 living species of elephants and extinct mammoths, Church said. Scientists believe they will have to simultaneously program “more than 50 changes” in the Asian elephant’s genetic code to give it the traits necessary to survive and thrive in the Arctic.
These traits, according to Church, include a 4-inch insulating layer of fat, five different types of fluffy fur, including one up to a meter long, and smaller ears that will help the hybrid tolerate the cold. The team also plans to try to make the animal tusk-free so that it is not a target for ivory poachers.
Once a cell has been successfully programmed with these and other traits, Church plans to use an artificial uterus to transition from embryo to baby, something that takes 22 months in living elephants. However, this technology is far from established, and Church said they had not ruled out using live elephants as parents.
“The editing process, I think, will go well. We have a lot of experience with that, making artificial bellies is not guaranteed. It is one of the few things that is not pure engineering, maybe there is also a little science, which always it increases uncertainty and delivery time, “he said.
Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Stockholm Center for Paleogenetics who works on the evolution of mammoths, believes that the work done by Church and his team has scientific value, especially with regard to the conservation of endangered species of extinction with genetic diseases or lack of genetic variation as a result of inbreeding.
“If endangered species have lost genes that are important to them … the ability to return them to endangered species could be really important,” said Dalén, who is not involved in the project.
“I keep wondering what the bigger goal would be. First of all, you’re not going to get a mammoth. It’s a hairy elephant with some fat deposits,” he said.
“We, of course, have very little idea what genes make a mammoth a mammoth. We know a little bit, but we certainly don’t know anywhere near enough.”
Others claim that it is unethical to use live elephants as surrogates to give birth to a genetically modified animal. Dalén described mammoths and Asian elephants as as different as humans and chimpanzees.
“Let’s say it works and there are no dire consequences. No surrogate mothers of elephants die,” said Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist and mammoth specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, who is not involved in the project.
“The idea is that by bringing the mammoths back and placing them in the Arctic, you engineer the Arctic to become a better place for carbon storage. That is a problem for me,” he said.
Hypothesis in doubt
Some believe that, prior to their extinction, grazing animals, such as mammoths, horses, and bison, maintained the grasslands in the northern parts of our planet and kept the land frozen underneath by stepping on grass, felling trees, and compacting the soil. snow. The reintroduction of mammoths and other large mammals to these places will help revitalize these environments and slow the thawing of permafrost and the release of carbon.
However, both Dalén and Herridige stated that there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, and that it is difficult to imagine that cold-adapted herds of elephants have any impact on an environment that is fighting forest fires, riddled with bogs and that heats up faster than any other part of the world.
“There is absolutely nothing that says putting mammoths there will have any effect on climate change,” Dalén said.
A different goal
Ultimately, the proposed end goal of nomadic mammoth herds as ecosystem engineers may not matter, and neither Herridge nor Dalén criticize Church and Lamm for embarking on the project. Many people would be happy to pay to get close to a surrogate mammoth.
“It might be fun to display them at the zoo. I have no problem with that if they want to put them in a park and, you know, make the kids more interested in the past,” Dalén said.
There is no pressure for the project to make money, Lamm said. He hopes that the project will translate into innovations that have applications in biotechnology and healthcare. He likened it to the way the Apollo project got people interested in space exploration, but it also spawned a lot of incredible technology, like GPS.
“I am absolutely fascinated by this. I am attracted to people who are technologically adventurous and it is possible that it makes a positive change,” said Herridge, the mammalian expert.