Scientists plan to resurrect woolly mammoths

The wonder of technological potential is ceaseless. It’s projected that, within the next couple of years, woolly mammoths might be resurrected, to immense consequences.

A long-extinct species might once again roam the earth. However bleak today might seem, astounding technological innovations always have the potential to dramatically alter the world. Whether beneficial or not, we’re relatively beholden to our creations.

I can imagine resurrecting woolly mammoths will be almost exclusively wonderful. It’s remarkable even that fully preserved specimens have been recovered from the permafrost, flash-frozen and static for 10,000 years. I’ve no doubt witnessing woolly mammoths will leap onto many bucket lists once they’re mobile once more, certainly including mine.

Despite the incredible science involved, various ethical questions do enshroud this project. When human intervention is discussed, there are no universal rules. There’s no underlying, objection truth to our abitrary perceptions of this topic. Personally, it makes that discussion vastly more interesting than the actual process (which is still extraordinary).

Whether right or wrong, woolly mammoths might soon appear on the horizon, and I wait with the gleeful anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.

Science behind resurrecting woolly mammoths

At the time of writing, Ben Lamm and Dr. George Church, a software entrepreneur and geneticist respectfully, are leading the charge. Their project, conducted under ‘de-extinction’ company Colossal, recently received a $15 million research grant to boost their genetic experiments.

You’ll have to excuse my layman’s outlook, but I’m afraid it’s the best I can offer in outlining the process. In brief, the greatest issue to resurrecting mammoths is that, despite the fact almost-perfectly preserved specimens have been recovered, the same permafrost responsible for maintaining their condition shatters the cells and degrades the DNA. It’s not, therefore, a simple case of cloning original woolly mammoth DNA and creating a perfect specimen.

Instead, through conducting genetic analyses, replicas can effectively be stitched together from multiple samples. Though incomplete, specific genes can be isolated from this, even if the entire strand is compromised. The exact genes involved in produced long, coarse hair, or curved tusks, for example, can be identified and extracted. The essential aspects of mammoths, therefore, can be replicated.

At this stage, a viable surrogate must be located to receive these genes. Thankfully, woolly mammoths are so closely related to modern Asian elephants it’s feasible to merge their genetic codes, birthing a hybrid that will more closely resemble the former such that it might survive in the Arctic. Effectively, it’s believed that an animal appearing to be a woolly mammoth could be born from an Asian elephant, and rewilded.

It’s slightly cheating, since the result will not be a woolly mammoth as they traditionally lived. What we’ll receive instead will be a hybrid hopefully capable of inhabiting the coldest regions of the Northern hemisphere.

That’s enough for me. I’m sure they’ll still be called woolly mammoths.

Ethical ramifications

It’s just slightly reminiscent of Jurassic Park, a fantastic book and the greatest film ever made. Apparently, the same methods theorised by Michael Crichton could well be utilised in upcoming years. Of course, with all the excitement comes the accompanying ethical dilemmas.

“Gee, the lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh, staggers me… Genetic power’s the most awesome force this planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun… your scientists were so preoccupied over whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should

– Ian Malcolm

The keen ethical questions and intense character development are just part of what makes the original Jurassic Park film so compelling (sorry to anyone who prefers reading). Furthermore, they’re relevant in this context. I’m not suggesting woolly mammoths are primed to end civilisation in one uncontrolled rampage; they’re innocent enough. Sadly, living dinosaurs remain but a mirage on the horizon. The wider applications of this technology are, however, daunting.

Once you can select specific genes, how long until we’re accurately conjuring human babies? I say how long, not if, since it’s almost an inevitability, if we haven’t eviscerated the planet through climate change before then. Already, this has been used to identify and remove medical conditions screened prior to fertilisation.

They’re identical in concept, but vastly different in the ramifications. Human tissues could be artificially mass-produced. Human babies could be artificially mass-produced.

I’m not squeamish in principle, but do oppose the kind of future I envisage here. Artificially generating life, crafting perfection in the natural world, leaves little room from the glorious imperfections that prove our humanity.

The ethical propositions are as goliath as the mammoths we seek to revive.

Is rewilding worth it?

Yes.

But, to make a short story long, rewilding hosts a plethora of benefits. Primarily, it feels appropriate to correct the path of human destruction, and restore habitats annihilated by our own hand. Restoring deforested land, and supporting native species is vital in itself to promote healthy ecosystems, keeping the delicate balance on our planet.

We have yet to comprehend the Earth’s full power. Regions lie unexplored, species hide undiscovered, ecosystems harbour untold secrets that might enhance human lives with new medical discoveries, minerals, or plain fascination with the natural world. It’s impossible to comprehensively predict the outcomes of reintroducing mammoths, but there might just be some future delight.

Already, we know some of what rewilding the Arctic might mean. Father and son Dr. Sergey and Nikita Zimov have established Pleistocene Park in Siberia. The 16km2 portion of land has experienced a complete transformation since the re-introduction of various large mammals, including bison, musk ox, moose, horses, and reindeer. A Russian tank currently simulates the presence of a mammoth.

Temperatures above this land have, since the short period of activation, fallen by 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

When woolly mammoths patrolled stretches of North America, Northern Europe, and the Arctic, 20,000-4,000 years ago, global temperatures were lower. The landscape was also dominated by ‘Mammoth Steppe’. This consisted of semi-swampy grasslands, with more compacted snow and permafrost that penetrated the soils. Since the extinction of mammoths, larger trees have flourished in forests that act more poorly as carbon sinks. Without large, migratory animals, the snow becomes less compacted, and becomes more vulnerable to extreme, volatile melting, since the underlying soil is warmer.

Woolly mammoth rewilding, therefore, has the potential to drastically aid our battle against climate change, perhaps even helping reverse global warming.

My inner ten-year-old

Big things look cool. Animals are awesome. Woolly mammoths would, for want of a more eloquent description, be awe-inspiring.

Just as I’ve always wanted to see a real dinosaur, I’d love to see an adult mammoth trekking across the tundra, a light dusting of snow topping its shaggy coat. I certainly fear the fallout, but in a rational, ‘surely far worse is occurring in secret?’, sense.  Obviously, the ethics have to be treated seriously and delicately.

Ultimately, reintroducing woolly mammoths would be both beneficial in a practical sense, representing a remarkable scientific development, and be fantastic to look at.

Further reading:

Woolly Mammoth project receives $15mn boost (CNN).

Entrepreneur plans to resurrect woolly mammoths (NHM).

Why bring back the woolly mammoth? (RR).

Woolly Mammoth’s extinction (NG).


Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on woolly mammoths (though I’d hardly imagine they could be negative…). I post a number of blogs, short stories, and travel posts, so check them out!

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4 thoughts on “Scientists plan to resurrect woolly mammoths

Add yours

  1. I understand your enthusiasm, but personally believe that creating a wooly mammouth, just because it’s technically feasible is a Frankenstein project.
    They’re very big. Even if they don’t, Jurassic Park style, attack their keepers, how much water will be needed to sustain one in its large zoo? How much do they eat? Won’t they need to make two of them in order to have a pair so we can all gush and coo over the films of the future baby mammouth?
    This seems to me to be an insane idea on a planet that is already experiencing a water crisis in many areas.
    A better idea, I think, is protecting existing nature and the animals on the edge of extinction now.

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    1. I think there are merits to the project beyond spectacle – the mammoths won’t be destined for a zoo. The hope is that a natural community will be able to live without human support. The initial stages will be very labour intensive, but if the programme overall is successful then future generations will be able to reap the benefits whilst the mammoth community cares for itself. Conserving existing nature should certainly be a priority, and in the arctic, where it’s difficult for humans to work anyway, this might just prove an innovative way of doing it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Whenever I read about something like this I immediately think of Jurassic Park, haha! It obviously made such an impact when I saw it in the cinema! I am amazed at the science behind this and the advancements are incredible so I will definitely follow this story.

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