Approximately 4,000 years after it originally went extinct, the woolly mammoth may soon once again roam the Earth – sort of, according to researchers who have proposed using the CRISPR gene editing tool to create a hybrid mammoth-elephant embryo within the next two years.
To be precise, Harvard University geneticist and molecular engineer George Church plans to create a creature that is mostly elephant but which possesses several mammoth traits, including a coat of bushy hair and blood adapted to the cold, Archaeology reported Thursday.
The proposed hybrid, also known as a “mammophant,” would also have subcutaneous fat and small ears, Church said before the beginning of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is being held this week in Boston.
The genes for those characteristics would be spliced into Asian elephant DNA using CRISPR, he explained to The Guardian. Church’s team has already been successful at the cellular level and now plans to begin working on creating embryos – something that could happen within the next two years.
“We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years,” Church added. “We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab. We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair, and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.”
‘Mammophant’ proposal raising some ethical concerns
Wooly mammoths went extinct during the last ice age and roamed throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America before dying off approximately 4,000 years ago. Scientists believe that its extinction was likely the result of hunting by humans and climate change.
Church and his colleagues have been working on bringing the creatures back for some time now, according to the Huffington Post. He previously told the website that the process involved taking DNA from mammoth remains discovered in the frozen tundra and splicing it into the DNA of an Asian elephant, which is so closely related to the mammoth that they could breed.
The Harvard professor has also said that he envisioned the mammophants living in Canadian and Russian tundras and that he and his fellow scientists plan to grow the hybrid embryo to inside an artificial womb. While Church insists that the modifications may help prevent the Asian elephant from becoming extinct, this proposal has attracted some criticism from elsewhere in the scientific community.
“The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue,” zoology professor Matthew Cobb from the University of Manchester told The Guardian. “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?”
“The only reason the mammoth has emerged as the iconic target for de-extinction is that it would be utterly cool,” wildlife biologist Stanley Temple told BBC News, adding that he fears that such a breakthrough might undermine conservation efforts. “De-extinction just provides the ultimate ‘out’. If you can always bring the species back later, it undermines the urgency about preventing extinctions.”
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