By Ryan Curran
The woolly mammoth species became extinct as a result of overhunting and increasing temperatures roughly 4,000 years ago. Looking back on the past, we sometimes wonder what it would be like to live amongst these massive animals that roamed the earth. This mere thought could become a reality. Scientists believe that, with the help of genetic engineering, they could create an embryo in less than two years.
A relative of the mammoth that is still existent (though endangered) is the Asian elephant. Utilizing this similarity, a team of scientists, led by a Harvard professor, George Church, have been trying to create a hybrid of these two animals. The team plans to create this hybrid: a “mammophant”, by adding mammoth traits to Asian elephant DNA. The mammophant would display traits such as long hair and insulating fat layers to help the animal survive cold temperatures similar to its original habitat thousands of years ago.
Church’s team hopes to create this hybrid species through the process of gene splicing. This method consists of extracting segments of an organism’s DNA—in this case, the Asian elephant—and inserting another organism’s DNA into the original DNA sequence. Scientists were able to take DNA from a mammoth’s body after it was frozen and preserved in northern Siberian ice for around 42,000 years. Even though Church and his team have been able to splice forty-five segments of mammoth DNA into that of the Asian elephant, they still have a little ways to go. Church decided that he would rather grow the mammophant in a lab created womb, instead of finding an Asian elephant to give birth to the animal. The thought process behind this decision is that the Asian elephant is already endangered. Consequently, Church fears he could disrupt the animal’s reproductive process by implanting a foreign embryo. The largest obstacle to overcome with this decision is that an artificial womb to harvest a hybrid embryo has not yet been created.
Church already has ideas in mind for how the creation of the mammoth-elephant hybrid could benefit the world we live in today. His number one use for the mammophant would be to work on slowing down the process of global warming. When the Arctic begins to melt, microbes start to eat the organic material that is under the ice. As this happens, large amounts of methane are admitted into that atmosphere, otherwise referred to as an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
Mammoths are thought to have the ability to actually slow down this process and keep the ice from melting. Church explains that woolly mammoths would “keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in. In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.” In addition to helping global warming, Church believes that his work could also help preserve the Asian elephant species at the same time.
Other researchers have been able to confirm Church’s hypothesis and reasoning behind eventually using them to help counteract global warming. Scientists have unearthed findings that suggest when animals walk across and pack down the snow, the ground below becomes colder.
Conversely, without animals in the area, the ground underneath the snow remains warmer as the snow is not as compacted. Having mammoths around to keep the ground colder would have a significant positive impact on the global warming epidemic we are experiencing today.
Other scientists, on the other hand, feel as though reintroducing a mammoth breed into the wild should be considered wrong and unethical. Mathew Cobb, who is the professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, disagrees with the idea, arguing 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?” These types of questions and concerns will continue to be raised as we inch closer to the idea of bringing the mammophant into the world.