Woolly mammoths could come back to life on Earth if they depend on a group of scientists and entrepreneurs who have already received US$15 million (about R$78 million) from sponsors for it.
The amount allocated to the Colossal company will help in the development of genetic engineering technologies that will enable a mammoth hybrid with an Asian elephant to be as close to the mammoth that has ever lived on the planet. Having achieved this goal, the next step would be to fill parts of Siberia with these animals, demanding environmental rebalancing.
“It will make all the difference in the world,” George Church, a biologist at Harvard University Medical School in the United States, said in an interview with the American newspaper The New York Times.
For the past eight years, Church has spent much of its time managing the project along with other enthusiasts of the idea. The starting point of the work will be genetic material from frozen remains of mammoths that died several millennia ago.
But there are those who oppose the idea, citing ethical problems in saving giant animals from extinction. It is also unlikely to know how these mammoths would behave on Earth today. “There are so many problems that will get in everyone’s way,” Beth Shapiro, a paleontologist at the University of California, also told The New York Times.
origin of the idea
The idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth was first expressed by the church in 2013. At the time, researchers were studying DNA fragments found in fossils in an attempt to reassemble the genomes of extinct species.
Church, who studies new ways to read and edit DNA, wondered: Is it possible to bring an extinct species back to life by adapting the genome of a relative that exists today?
Mammoths seem like the best candidates to you because they are a close ancestor of today’s Asian elephants: they share a common ancestor that lived about 6 million years ago. In addition, mammoth DNA can be easily found in Siberia.
Biologists say the mammoths may also help restore ecological balance: Global warming has increased temperatures in the tundra of Siberia and North America, leading to an accelerated release and large amounts of carbon dioxide.
Much of it in today’s tundra is moss, but used to be pasture in the times of mammoths. Biologists believe that the mammoth acted as a protector of this ecosystem, maintaining pasture by clearing moss, plucking trees and releasing abundant excrement that fertilized the soil. With the return of these animals, all of this could be recovered and carbon dioxide emissions decreased.
The scientist’s early ideas attracted the attention of journalists, but not investors: he only managed to raise US$100,000 (R$520,000) for his research. “Honestly, I intended to go slow,” Church said.
However, in 2019, he met Ben Lam, the founder of Texas AI Hypergiant Company, who, after reading news about the project, showed interest in helping this rescue of the giant animal. “After a day in the lab and spending a lot of time with George, we were so excited,” said Lam, who then began founding the company Colossal.
Two ‘Resurrection’ Technologies
Extinct animals can be brought back in two ways: cloning and genetic engineering. The first method is known for the example of Dolly the sheep, which was cloned in 1997. In this procedure, DNA from one animal is injected into a fertilized egg from another donor animal, and the egg is then implanted into a surrogate mother.
This method has already been tried with the bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, which was officially declared extinct in 2000. Three years after its disappearance from the face of the earth, its DNA was extracted and cloned from the frozen skin of the animal. A surrogate mother goat gave birth to an ibex—the first time an extinct species has been revived.
Unfortunately, this was also the first case of double extinction, as the chick only lived for seven minutes.
There are many well-preserved remains of mammoths in permafrost from Siberia, but its DNA is usually damaged by prolonged freezing. Scientists have already understood the genome of the mammoth, but have not been able to obtain the complete genetic chain as it existed for the animal.
This is where a second resequencing method can come in handy, the so-called CRISPR gene-editing technique. In it, specific genes that allow mammoths to survive at high latitudes are inserted into the genome of their closest living relative, the Asian elephant.
Then, the modified genome is implanted into a fertilized elephant egg, which is then transplanted into an elephant surrogate mother. From there a hybrid of elephant and mammoth is expected to be born.
Of course, there are bigger difficulties, such as scientists don’t know exactly which genes are needed to survive in the Arctic. They know that the animal must be covered with fur, have an oval skull and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat – but everything else is still a question.
Today, about 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. According to Lamm, if the giant project is successful, it will pave the way for the “genetic liberation” of various creatures.
The term refers to the process of increasing the genetic diversity of endangered species through cloning or genetic engineering. Lam says the huge project is a “trial balloon” of sorts.
Even if this giant is not brought back to Earth as well, technologies will be developed that could prevent the species from extinction and can be licensed or sold – after all, the company is commercial and not charitable.
So the project to resurrect mammoths can be seen as a kind of incubator for the development of genetic engineering and intellectual property, which may be easier to breed than live woolly mammoths.
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