mammoth genome
April 24, 2015

Mammoth genome sequence completed; time to clone?

Shayne Jacopian for - @ShayneJacopian

Hold onto your butts: An international team of researchers has finally sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth.

Some of the researchers involved view this as a giant leap towards recreating extinct species. According to Hendrik Poinar, the senior Canadian scientist on the project, “This discovery means that recreating extinct species is a much more real possibility, one we could in theory realize within decades.”

Indeed, the Long Now Foundation, based in San Francisco, claims that it’s already attempting to do just that, by inserting mammoth genes into elephant stem cells. Their ultimate goal is to “produce new mammoths that are capable of repopulating the vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America”.

mammoth genome

Tip of the trunk of a baby mammoth. (Credit: Love Dalen)

According to the foundation’s site, Long Now isn’t necessarily seeking to perfectly copy the extinct woolly mammoth, but to instead to “focus on the mammoth adaptations needed for Asian elephants to live in the cold climate of the tundra”.

Would be a lot of fun

The foundation sees this as a method of confronting climate change—by reintroducing grazing species to the tundra, Long Now explains, the tundra can be converted back to grasslands, which will not only insulate permafrost, but also reign in atmospheric carbon.

A few scientists from the team that mapped the mammoth genome raise some questions about the ethics of the experiments that would be required to revive an extinct species, however.

While Dr. Love Delén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm admits that “it would be a lot of fun (in principle) to see a living mammoth to see how it behaves and how it moves,” he points out that “trying this out might lead to suffering for female elephants and that would not be ethically justifiable.”

Poor elephants

Dr. Delén is not alone in his attitude towards what is known in the field as “mammoth de-extinction”. Professor Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wrote a book called How to Clone a Mammoth, explains reasons why we should not try to clone mammoths, especially through experiments on elephants.

"Elephants do not fare well in captivity, struggle with assisted reproduction, and should be allowed to make more elephants. Secondly, elephants are highly social creatures and there is no reason to suspect that mammoths were not. One mammoth would be necessarily alone in the world. It could not be released into the freedom of the Arctic until there were many of them. Until we can make many mammoths without using elephants, to my mind it is ethically unsound."

Whether the woolly mammoth will once again roam the Earth, or the scientific community will come to a broad consensus that bringing back extinct species is a bad move, one thing is certain—nobody’s about to bring back the saber-toothed tiger.

And for good reason.


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