[Originally published as Will Scientists Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth?]
One of my former students sent me an article from The Telegraph, a news outlet in the UK. The headline reads:
Woolly mammoth will be back from extinction within two years, say Harvard scientists
The article was written in February of 2017, so the student wanted to know if there would really be living woolly mammoths next year. The answer, of course, is absolutely not. This article is just another example of how many “science journalists” understand neither science nor journalism. Nevertheless, the actual scientific story is interesting, even though it isn’t nearly as sensational as what is indicated in The Telegraph‘s article, or articles found on other sites, such as here and here.
These articles are attempting to report on the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project, which is headed by Harvard professor Dr. George Church. As its website indicates, the goal is not to bring back the identical mammoth species again. Instead, its goal is to create some kind of elephant/mammoth hybrid that can live in colder climates. Why would it want to do that? For ecological engineering.
At some time in the past, woolly mammoth herds (and herds of other cold-adapted animals) roamed what are now the evergreen forests in the northern latitudes. This kept the growth of evergreens in check, making those areas more like grasslands. In addition, the mammoth herds would pack down and scrape away snow. Without this “land reshaping,” snow insulates the soil below, reducing the depth to which it freezes. As the deeper soil thaws, it releases greenhouse gases, and the worry is that those released greenhouse gases will accelerate global warming, aka “climate change.” Now please note that actual data indicate thawing soil will reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but most “climate change” alarmists aren’t interested in the data.
In the end, then, the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project hopes to populate the north with cold-adapted, elephant-like animals that will once again turn the northern evergreen forests into grasslands, packing down and scraping away the snow as they roam.
I see at least one big problem with this idea. We have already witnessed the devastating effects of introducing new animals to regions where they don’t exist. In my high-school biology course, I discuss the devastation that occurred when Europeans brought rabbits to Australia. It took a virus to get that problem under control, and it is still a long way from being solved. Because some people simply cannot learn from history, the cane toad was later introduced in Australia, and biologists are still trying to fix that mess. Does anyone really believe that introducing herds of elephant-like mammals in the north isn’t going to result in a similar fiasco?
Putting aside that problem, however, the research is interesting and is worth discussing a bit more. While woolly mammoths are not alive today, some have been so well-preserved that DNA has been taken from their remains. That DNA has been sequenced, and in 2015, a study compared that DNA to the DNA of Asian elephants, which are genetically very similar to woolly mammoths. The study identified 1,642 genes in woolly mammoth DNA that are different from the genes in Asian elephants. The Woolly Mammoth Revival Project is using gene-editing procedures to change some of those genes in Asian elephant DNA to match what is found in woolly mammoth DNA.
Has the project been successful? According to their website:
To date a number of genes have been successfully rewritten into Asian Elephant cell lines, generating increasingly mammoth-like cells with each precise edit. Mutations for mammoth hemoglobin, extra hair growth, fat production, down to nuanced climate adaptations such as slightly altered sodium ion channels in cell membranes have already been engineered into fibroblast cell lines.
If you don’t recognize the term, fibroblast cells are found in connective tissue. They produce proteins that are characteristic of such tissue. So far, then, the project has managed to produce individual cells in which some of the genes have been changed to what was found in mammoths. That, of course, is a far cry from making an actual animal, and it is farther still from “resurrecting” the woolly mammoth!
As the project’s website states, the team now has to convert those fibroblast cells into stem cells, and then coax those stem cells to produce various tissues, like blood, hair, and fat. Most likely, the tissues won’t act properly, because the new genes have to be regulated. A lot of gene regulation occurs in what evolutionists used to call “junk DNA,” and there is still much we don’t understand about that. With a lot of trial and error, however, it is possible that at some point, they will have a genome that can produce cold-adapted tissues properly.
Now comes the hard part. They have to coax one of those cells into thinking it is the result of a fertilization process, so that it will start to form an embryo. The coaxing itself isn’t a problem; we have seen that already in other mammal clones. The problem will be developing the embryo. Typically, a clone is made by allowing the cell to start the embryonic development process and then, when it reaches the correct stage, implanting it into a female of the same species. Obviously, that’s not possible in this case.
So what will the scientists do if they ever reach the point of being able to make an embryo? The obvious choice would be to implant the embryo into an Asian elephant. But there’s a problem with that. Asian elephants are an endangered species! Nurturing an embryo and giving birth is a dangerous task for any mammal, and if the experiments with mammal cloning are any indication, it will have to be done several times to get viable offspring. Is it really ethical to experiment on endangered animals like that?
That’s why I say this is the hard part. In the end, the project’s current plan is to build an artificial womb in which to allow the embryo to develop. There has been some progress made in artificial wombs, but they have only been used on lamb embryos that had already been in a real womb for at least 125 days. In addition, the lead researcher says that this technology is not intended to work in the early stages of embryonic development, which would be necessary for the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project.
To sum up, then, we will not be seeing woolly mammoths in 2019. In fact, we won’t even see elephant/mammoth hybrids in 2019. If this ambitious project ever succeeds, it will be many years, probably decades, from now.