A lab at Harvard University is the site of one of the most unique experiments ever attempted. Scientists are on the verge of bringing back an animal that has been extinct for 10,000 years.
The woolly mammoth was the largest land mammal that ever walked the earth. It towered 12 feet tall at the shoulder with tusks 15-feet long and hair that could grow up to 3-feet long. For more than a hundred years, Russian scientists have been finding perfectly preserved carcasses of the beast in the Siberian permafrost that has slowly been melting. And now, using DNA recovered from a thawed-out specimen, scientists are attempting to plug the mammoth’s DNA into the egg of a female Asian elephant, growing the specimen in an artificial womb.
The result should be a very close approximation to what a mammoth actually looked like.
The billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, is backing the effort to the tune of $100,000.
The claims were published in a book called ‘Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures’, by American author Ben Mezrich.
‘Just remember: It’s only science fiction until we remove the fiction, then it becomes real,’ one scientist told Mr Mezrich, according to MIT Technology Review.
Mr Mezrich, who wrote a book about the founding of Facebook that was adapted into the critically-acclaimed film The Social Network, claimed Mr Thiel was having breakfast with Church when he asked to fund the ‘craziest thing’ he was working on.
Mr Thiel chose the mammoth, turning down an anti-ageing scheme and an artificial intelligence project, according to the author.
This is not the first time that the Harvard team has found its ambitious mammoth project in the spotlight this year.
In February, the group announced that the scheme would take just two more years to produce the ‘nearest possible thing to a mammoth’ that could be created.
The final beast would be a hybrid between an Asian elephant and a mammoth.
It would be created from the DNA extracted from frozen mammoth carcasses retrieved from permafrost.
If the Harvard University scientists succeed it will mark a turning point in plans to revive mammoths – by programming their genes into an Asian elephant.
The bundle of cells would have genes for mammoth features such as shaggy long hair, thick layers of fat, and blood that is perfectly suited to flowing in sub zero conditions.
The scientists have ambitious plans to grow it within an artificial womb rather than recruit a female elephant as a surrogate mother.
Since starting the project in 2015, the researchers have increased the number of ‘edits’ where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.
Professor George Church, who heads the Harvard team, said: ‘We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and are basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab.
‘The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments.
‘We already know about ones to do with small ears, sub-cutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.’
Professor Church says: “We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”
Does the world really need a woolly mammoth? Aside from a curiosity to be viewed at a zoo, what would be the effect on the ecosystem of introducing a creature with no predator that could hunt it? It is believed that early man was at least partly responsible for the mammoth’s extinction — but unless some enterprising entrepreneur establishes a company that takes clients on mammoth hunts, the woolly ones won’t have to worry about us.
The situation seems ripe for the law of unintended consequences to wreak havoc. I’m sure the scientists are being careful and have thought through what might happen — to the extent they are able to foresee the future. But just because we are able to do something doesn’t make it right or mean that we should be doing it.