In response to the critical decline in the numbers of African and Asian elephants due to habitat loss and poaching, a geneticist is proposing the creation of a hybrid species that is a cross between one of the existing elephant species and a long-extinct wooly mammoth, to allow them to inhabit a broader range of habitats. Additionally, the researcher is proposing that these new creatures be given further genetic tweaks to offer them other traits, such as smaller tusks to make them less attractive to ivory poachers.
The idea of cloning a mammoth is one that’s been around for a number of decades, and is a feasible concept as well-preserved DNA samples have been recovered from the bodies of mammoths that have been recovered from frozen Arctic tundra. Due to a combination of technical barriers and ethical questions, scientists have been kept from creating a Pleistocene version of Jurassic Park, but professor George Church, a geneticist with Harvard University, is set to release a series of four papers that outline the road to not only cloning a mammoth, but also to produce a genetically-altered elephant hybrid, brought to term in an artificial womb.
Sequencing of the woolly mammoth’s genome was completed in 2015, allowing researchers to isolate 44 genes that encode traits specific to mammoths, such as their characteristically shaggy coat, and chemical compounds in their blood that act as a form of antifreeze. Adding these traits to an existing elephant species would allow their populations to expand beyond their current habitat, one that is rapidly shrinking. Church is also proposing the addition of non-mammoth genes to provide the new pachyderms with additional traits. "We’re putting in genes that reduce the tusk size to prevent poaching, making them so they can eat a broader range of plants, giving them genes that other animals have to do that," Church explains. "We want something that can adapt to a different environment so we save two ecosystems, one is the elephant ecosystem and the other is the tundra."
Church is also proposing that they employ an artificial womb to bring the ele-mammoth (mammophant?) to term, as such an experiment has the potential to harm an elephant that might be used to birth the hybrid naturally, if something were to go wrong–there are only an estimated 440,000 African elephants left in the world, and only about 45,000 Asian elephants, meaning that the loss of any individual is significant. These artificial wombs are still being developed, so the prospect of growing a large mammal such as an elephant may be some time off; in the interim, development of the new technique is being done using mice embryos.
- A close-up of the face of an elephant near Kinabatangan River, Sukau, Sabah, Malaysia via Wikimedia Commons
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