By: April Carson
Science fiction is obsessed with resurrecting extinct species. Think Jurassic Park and its menagerie of dinosaurs, which are among the most exciting possibilities.
However, recent advancements in genetics are enabling scientists to resurrect extinct animals. Scientists have already cloned endangered species and can sequence DNA from bones and carcasses of long-dead, extinct creatures.
Harvard Medical School's George Church and his colleagues, including Harvard Medical School astrobiologist Steven Benner and others, are attempting to resurrect the woolly mammoth, which vanished 4,000 years ago. The tusked ice age giant will be restored to its natural habitat in a future where the wooly mammoth is resurrected.
The geneticists have already assembled most of the mammoth genome from DNA found in museum specimens. The team is now working on filling in the gaps in the genome with DNA from an extinct relative of the mammoth, the elephant.
The researchers hope to use CRISPR-Cas9, a new gene-editing tool, to insert mammoth genes into the cells of an elephant. The goal is to create an animal that looks and acts like a woolly mammoth but is genetically 99% elephant.
Asian elephants have experienced a considerable decline in population size due to hunting and habitat loss, which is also the case for their close relatives—the woolly mammoths. However, on Monday, it was announced that there would be a $15 million investment in order to bring back the long-extinct species through genetic engineering. Some people believe that this will help improve conditions for the delicate tundra ecosystem while others see this as an ethical issue.
The mission isn't to clone a mammoth--the DNA that researchers have succeeded in extracting from woolly mammoth remains submerged in permafrost is too deteriorated and fractioned. The goal is to, through genetic engineering, create a living elephant-mammoth hybrid that would be indistinguishable from its extinct predecessor.
“We hope to have our first calves in four to six years,” says Ben Lamm, a tech entrepreneur who has cofounded Colossal, a biom Sciences and genetics firm, with Church. Lamm and Church’s project has stirred excitement—and some ethical concerns. The idea is to use CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful gene-editing tool, to insert genes for mammoth traits into the DNA of an Asian elephant.
Lamm and his investors' new money and attention represent a major stride forward, according to Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. “Up until 2021, it has been more of a backburner project, honestly. ... but we can really do it now,'” he said.
The Rev. James Weaver is one of the founders and leading members of their team, which has worked on several massive scientific projects including pushing forward CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing technology that The New York Times dubbed "rewriting the DNA code for life," to modify species' features. Because of his efforts to engineer pigs with human organs that are suitable, a kidney from a pig may be given to someone in need of a transplant.
“We had to make a lot of genetic changes- 42 in total- to make them human compatible,” he said. “And we have very healthy pigs that are breeding and donating organs for preclinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital as a result."
The prospect of bringing a long-extinct species like the woolly mammoth back to life has been a source of excitement and controversy in the scientific community. Some worry that resurrecting the mammoths could have unforeseen environmental consequences, while others believe that the animals could help mitigate the effects of climate change by restoring lost grassland ecosystems.
Our research team has analyzed the genomes of 23 living elephant species and extinct mammoths, said Church. We believe that in order to give an Asian elephant the traits necessary for survival in the Arctic, we will need to program 50 changes into its genetic code simultaneously.
Church said that these traits include a layer of insulating fat that is 10 centimeters thick, five different kinds of shaggy hair including some that is up to a meter long, and smaller ears. The team also plans to try to engineer the animal so it won't have any tusks in order to avoid Ivory poachers from being attracted by the animal.
If all goes well, Church plans to use an artificial womb to program cells and make the embryo-to-baby transition - something that takes elephants 22 months to do. Although this technology is tentative, they haven't ruled out live elephants as surrogates quite yet.
In the meantime, Church and his team are still working on the genetic engineering of plants to make them more resistant to climate change. He is also researching a way to use CRISPR to edit human genes in order to make people resistant to HIV, malaria, and other diseases.
The work being done by Church and his team, according to Love Dalén who is a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm and works on mammoth evolution, has scientific value. This is due in part to endangered species often having genetic diseases or suffering from a lack of genetic variation as result of inbreeding--two areas where Church's team could potentially offer aid.
“If endangered species have lost genes that are important to them, the ability to restore them back into an endangered species might be really valuable,” Dalén added.
“I fail to see the point. You're certainly not going to get a mammoth. It's an elephant with some body fat, hairier than usual perhaps.”
"Genetically, we are not sure what Makes a mammoth a mammoth. We have some ideas but there is still much research to be done in this area."
It is also unsustainable to use living elephants as surrogates to create a genetically engineered animal, according to some. According on Dalén, mammoths and Asian elephants are as different from humans and chimpanzees as humans and chimps are.
"Mammoths went extinct because of humans, and now we want to bring them back? That is just wrong," said one commenter on the project's Facebook page.
"If we assume that it works and there are no terrible side effects, what would happen?" said Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist specialized in mammoths at the Natural History Museum of London who is not a part of the project.
Grazing animals like mammoths, horses and bison are thought to have kept the earth frozen by stomping down grass, knocking over trees and compacting snow. Reintroducing large mammals to these areas could help revitalize the environment and slow down permafrost thaw and the release of carbon.
That said, Dalén and Herridige stated there was no proof to back up this claim, and it was difficult to imagine cold-hardy elephants making any difference on a world grappling with wild fires, mires, and warming faster than anywhere else.
“There’s nothing that says putting mammoths out there will have any impact on climate change,” Dalén added.
In the end, the purported aim of herds of migrating mammoths as ecosystem engineers may be irrelevant; neither Herridge nor Dalén criticize Church and Lamm for starting it. Many people might be willing to pay to get up close to a stand-in mammoth.
Lamm commented that there is "zero pressure" for the project to turn a profit-- he is banking on the undertaking yielding inventions with applications in biotechnology and health care, much like how the Apollo project spurred people's interests in space exploration but also gave way to countless ground-breaking technologies such as GPS.
"This really interests me. I tend to be more attracted to people who are comfortable taking risks with new technology, and it sounds like this could have a good impact," said Herridge, the specialist in large animals.
The idea to bring the extinct mammoth back to life has been met with criticism from some quarters, who argue that it is unethical to tamper with nature. Lamm is unfazed by such concerns.
"I think people are too quick to judge what is ethical and what isn't," he said. "If we can use this technology for good, then I think we should."
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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