Scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at ways to resurrect mammoths

Date:20 September 2021 Tags:, ,

A team of scientists and entrepreneurs announced that they have started a new company that is said to genetically resurrect mammoths.

According to Getaway, a company called Colossal is aiming to bring thousands of these extinct giants back to the Siberian tundra. Dr George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School has argued that the mammoths may help the environment.

Currently, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the species once lived are increasingly warming and releases carbon dioxide and mammoths are the solution to this according to Dr Church.

The team plans to edit elephant DNA and add genes for mammoth traits such as dense hair and thick fat to survive the cold. The scientists hope to produce embryos out of these mammoth-like elephants in a few years.

How can mammoths help with climate change?

Tundra is an ecosystem that has a relationship with grazing herbivores and has a great effect on the type of vegetation and amount of carbon dioxide released from the soil during rising temperatures.

The tundra of Siberia was filled with grasslands that vanished under mysterious circumstances along with the mammoths that shared the ecosystem. To date, the tundra is dominated by moss, but when the mammoths were around it was grassland. Some researchers call the mammoths ecosystem engineers that maintained grasslands by breaking up moss, knocking down trees and provided fertilizer with their feaces.

This process of grazing and fertilisaion changed the entire composition of the soil. With the loss of grasslands and the changing composition of the soil, tundra environments are expected to release significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as the ground thaws.

A mammoth task

If Dr Church and his team are successful, it will be a massive scientific breakthrough. When Dr Church addressed the National Geographic Society in 2013, researchers were learning how to reconstruct genomes of extinct species, such as with the Quagga project in South Africa.

Mammoths went extinct around 10 000 years ago. Dr Church is best known for inventing ways of reading and editing DNA to exploree the possibility of reviving an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative.

Analysing the genomes of woolly mammoths collected from fossils, the team drew up a list of differences between mammoths and elephants and zeroed in on 60 genes they suggest are distinctive traits of mammoths. These traits relate to hair, fat, and the mammoths distinctive high-domed skull.

The scientists will try to make an elephant embryo with its genome modified to resemble an ancient mammoth. To do this, the scientists will need to remove DNA from an elephant egg and replace it with mammoth-like DNA.

No one has ever harvested an elephant egg,  but the team is investigating turning ordinary elephant tissue into stem cells, which could be coaxed to develop embryos in the lab.

Beth Shapiro, archaeologist and author of How to clone a mammoth, told The New York Times that this project may save many threatened species in the future, and that ‘the pace of climate change and the pace of habitat degradation is such that evolution isn’t going to be able to save them’. ‘We need to intervene even more,’ Shapiro said.

Picture: Flickr Commons

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