Research from Harvard University is exciting some scientists about the prospects of being able to recreate the long extinct woolly mammoth. The ice age mammal’s DNA could potentially be spliced with an Asian elephant to create a hybrid.
Harvard Geneticist Professor, George Church, briefed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the progress his team has made in the past two years of trying to “de-extinct” the mammoth.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”
His team has managed to create a hybrid “mammophant” cell and hopes to reach an embryo within the next two years. They owe some of their credit to the gene-editing tool Crispr, according to the Guardian. However, it will be many more years before a living mammophant could be lumbering around our colder climates.
Despite being mixed with an Asian elephant, the mammophant would retain the majority of its features from the mammoth genes such as its small ears, subcutaneous fat, cold adapted blood and, of course, its long woolly coat. Bringing in Asian elephant genes could be a way of keeping its genetics alive in case of extinction.
While some may delight at seeing Manny from Ice Age in real life, others have some ethical concerns over the process. Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, told the Guardian that “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?”
Further complicating that issue is the proposed method of gestating a mammophant embryo. Church plans to use only artificial wombs to gestate the hybrid out of concern for having an endangered species carry an extinct animal.
“Church’s team is proposing to rear the embryo in an ‘artificial womb’ which seems ambitious to say the least – the resultant animal would have been deprived of all the pre-birth interactions with its mother,” said Cobb.
However, Church remains hopeful for the possibilities de-extincting the mammoth could bring. Of their positive attributes, Church claimed that their stomping in cold climates could prevent permafrost from thawing by “punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in.”
In the summer, mammophants could pay their dues by knocking down trees to aid in grass growth.