Woolly Mammoth Clone: According to studies, the planet is now in the midst of mass extinction for the sixth time, with the fifth one being the extinction of dinosaurs. Thanks to perilous anthropogenic activities, about 30 to 160 species seem to vanish every passing day.
Since 1500, an estimate of more than 300 animal species (e.g., birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles) has already disappeared. While the number is still not specific, many scientists think that the rate of species disappearance is the greatest in the Earth’s history.
However, what do you think will happen if extinction can be prevented? What will happen if lost species can be again brought back to life?
For many years now, the idea of resurrecting or reviving animals from extinction has always been the aim of numerous scientific studies. With the advancement of technology, this dream is now speeding closer to being a reality.
Among many species in the animal kingdom, the Woolly Mammoth and the Passenger Pigeon are the top priority. These two species were once functionally distinct species, and after their extinction, the habitats they once lived in, changed drastically.
In this page, we will explore on the large hairy Woolly Mammoth and the studies being done concerning it. Extinct for thousands of years, can the Woolly Mammoth be resurrected?
Wouldn’t this be fascinating? Moreover, how much would a phenomenon in science will this be?
Table of Contents
What exactly is a Woolly Mammoth?
Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) were elephant-like creatures that lived more than 120,000 years ago (from Pleistocene epoch to Holocene epoch), long after the dinosaurs went extinct.
Woolly Mammoths are believed to share a common ancestor with modern-day elephants, only that the former is more adapted to colder climates. However, the exact phylogeny and how divergence occurred over time is still not elucidated.
- During the ice ages, the Woolly Mammoth is believed to thrive in the steppe grasslands of North America over the land bridge of Beringia.
- Like other herbivores, the Woolly Mammoth helped in the maintenance of the grasslands in the ancient Arctic ecosystems. They do this explicitly by running into trees and dispersing grass seeds in their fecal matter.
- When they disappeared, the grasslands turned into the modern-day mossy taiga and tundra ecosystems, which are now starting to melt and liberate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists think that the tundra ecosystems have the highest carbon risk among all of the forests in the world combined.
- Interestingly, humans have witnessed the existence of the Woolly Mammoths as numerous cave paintings of them have been found in Spain and France.
- Also, mammoth bones were also utilized to create tools and used during burial ceremonies. However, except for fossils preserved in ice, the Woolly Mammoth is now extinct.
The Woolly Mammoth Clone Project
Known as the Woolly Mammoth Project, the de-extinction project is spearheaded by a Harvard-based team with Dr.George Church as the team leader. The cloning process will utilize the CRISPR genetic engineering process to copy and paste Mammoth genetic material into live fibroblast cell cultures from elephants.
- At present, numerous Mammoth genes have already been encoded into elephant cell lines, which resulted in some already “mammoth-like” cells.
- Aside from that, the genetic engineering of various character traits like hemoglobin production, adipose tissue production, hair growth, as well as adaptation to cold climates, have already been encoded in the fibroblast cell lines.
- After that, the said cell lines will be engineered to become cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These cells, also known as “immortal cells“, will be used to create cells from three primary body layers, and can eventually generate cells and tissues on its own.
- In the case of the Woolly Mammoth stem cells, they will be used to create cells to study the mutation effects on the aforementioned character traits.
- When the traits have successfully been incorporated in the tissues, the next step in the cloning process would be the generation of embryos using stem cell embryogenesis. An artificial womb/uterus will be used to carry the Woolly Mammoth embryo. In particular, Asian elephants will serve as the surrogate mothers to gestate the embryos.
- While the said plan may appear to be seemingly impossible, two previous scientific discoveries have paved the way for the development of this present study. Such breakthroughs include the transfer of fetal lambs to artificial lambs and the healthy birth offspring from the 3D printed ovaries of infertile mice.
- According to the scientists, once embryos have been successfully produced, young cloned Woolly Mammoths will be grown in cold temperatures in preparation for their living in the wild.
- Moreover, once a stable population of clone mammoths has been obtained, the group will be placed in the identified restoration sites in the Arctic, particularly in Siberia.
Woolly Mammoth DNA
In order to get a hold of the Woolly Mammoth DNA, scientists, before this current project, obtained bones from a Woolly Mammoth that existed more than 12,000 years ago. After that, DNA fragments from the bones were amplified to generate numerous copies of the target genes.
Fortunately, a lot of these DNA fragments overlapped, so scientists were able to get a picture of what the genome looks like. The results of the analyses showed that the Woolly Mammoth has more than 95.8% similarities with the modern-day Asian elephant.
- Despite these vast similarities, scientists believe that more than 2,000 genetic mutations (i.e., non-protein coding ones) have been expressed in modern-day elephants. Furthermore, they think that some of these mutations include the character trait of adaptation to cold climates.
- While genetic material already been obtained from the Woolly Mammoth, one major dilemma of this project is the absence of viable DNA for cloning. Because of being frozen for long periods of time, some DNA has already been degraded, or some trimmed.
- The scientists have figured out a way to solve this problem: altering the modern-day elephant genome to recreate the mammoth genome. With this, of course, the resulting product will not be precisely identical with the extinct one but undoubtedly a closely related one.
What is the goal of the revival?
As the developments and innovations in the field of biotechnology continue to increase, the idea of reviving an extinct species may come true in the future. The Woolly Mammoth is such an ideal species to be resurrected because some intact mammoth fossils are still available and that it still has close living relatives at present.
- In this scientific endeavor, scientists and researchers want to learn the ways of nature and make artificial living organisms with the use of synthetic biology. The genetic material of prehistoric animals is believed by many scientists to be important records of information about adaptation and evolution.
- In order to do this, an organism’s character traits expressed in the cells, tissues, as well as behavior need to be studied.
- In the case of extinct animals, “de-extinction” will allow the study of prehistoric data where the mere identification of the genome cannot give. In particular, the information about the Woolly Mammoth blood will give substantial data about the adaptation of the mammalian blood to survive in cold climates. Such knowledge will be beneficial in the study of diseases in humans.
- Ultimately, the goal of this “de-extinction” project is for species to re-populate the boreal and tundra forests of North America, Europe, and Asia. The goal is not to create exact copies of the extinct Woolly Mammoth but to observe the adaptations of this organisms to survive in cold climates. The knowledge of such will be beneficial in the conservation and preservation of the population of elephants in Asia.
The Drawbacks of the Woolly Mammoth Revival
Of course, when there are advantages, there are also the disadvantages attached with the revival of the Woolly Mammoth. One of the biggest enemies of animal cloning is ethics. Like any other scientific procedure that involves the manipulation of natural creation, de-extinction via cloning process is deemed to be unethical and is contrary to the religious and moral views of many people.
- Another challenge to this process is the difference between the kinds of environments where these species once thrived in and the environments we have now.
- Critics of these kinds of de-extinction projects believe that rather than focusing on the reviving of long-dead species, modern day technologies should center more on the conservation and restoration of living organisms and those who are endangered.
Indeed, reviving a living organism is, if not impossible, very difficult. While the Woolly Mammoth is such an ideal candidate for this, there are still ongoing debates whether doing such is possible. On the other hand, some believe that reviving species is no longer considered a “what if” but rather a “when” question.
However, can the resurrection of the Woolly Mammoth bring good to humanity or will it just cause the other way around? What do you think?