The push to have woolly mammoths cloned and reintroduced into the wild has received a $15 million boost, with the project’s lead scientist saying that the reintroduction of a hybrid of the currently-extinct creatures and Asian elephants would be used to help combat the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

The research team working on resurrecting the mammoths is led by Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church, a pioneer in new approaches to gene editing. With $15 million in funding provided by bioscience and genetics company Colossal, their aim is to use an Asian elephant as a surrogate—both as a genetic template and possibly as a host to gestate the mammoth calf—for reintroduction into the Siberian landscape as a method of mitigating the effects of global warming. The team also hopes that this approach will help conserve Asian elephants as a species by equipping them with new traits that would allow them to expand into different habitats, such as the Arctic tundra.

“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40°C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees,” according to Church.

Many mammoth carcasses with intact genetic material have been recovered from the Siberian permafrost over the decades, providing the researchers with a genome to cross-reference with the DNA of extant elephants to isolate the genes particular to woolly mammoths. After synthesizing the new genome, the researchers would then create an egg cell from stem cells and replace its nucleus with the genetic material of the mammoth; after the egg starts to divide, it would then be either implanted into the uterus of a female elephant as a surrogate mother, or into an artificial womb to gestate, a period expected to last 22 months. Church’s team expects to be able to produce their first set of calves in six years.

The idea of using mammoths to combat the effects of global warming comes from a project currently being conducted in Siberia, where researchers have set up a nature reserve using animals that were present during the Pleistocene era that still exist today, such as bison, ox and wild horses, in an attempt to recreate the ecosystem from the last ice age. It was found that the animals’ trampling of the ground had a measurable impact on the permafrost: even when the air temperature was -40°C (-40°F), permafrost that was insulated by fresh snow was a much warmer -5°C (23°F), but in areas where the snow had been trampled down by animal hooves, the permafrost was a much colder -30°C (-22°F), as the compacted snow was less insulating.

Presumably, herds of woolly mammoths would have an even greater impact than the comparatively smaller modern-day megafauna, although the plan is not without its critics. “My personal thinking is that the justifications given—the idea that you could geo-engineer the Arctic environment using a herd of mammoths—isn’t plausible,” remarked Dr Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, England.

“The scale at which you’d have to do this experiment is enormous. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths which each take 22 months to gestate and 30 years to grow to maturity.” Church, however, is hoping that the mammoths will breed amongst themselves once introduced into the wild, taking the burden of repopulation off of the lab, although there are no guarantees that the new hybrid pachyderms will be more successful in their new habitat than their modern—or former ice age—counterparts.

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  1. Bad, bad, bad idea. Instead of using an extinct species, we should be working to save and preserve living species, our planet, the environment, and ourselves.

    And the academic and scientific communities wonder why they aren’t listened to these days, or respected by the general public…

  2. The outcome of such a move is predictable . First there will be damage control hunts and special permit auctions to take them and eventually the total extinction of their species again due to over hunting and poachers .

    It is a pointless effort until blood sports end . We may never see that day . We are the ultimate predators on this planet .

  3. I’m all for it. Re-wilding is a conservation technique that can help restore ecosystems. In this case, arid steppe tundra, which would definitely increase albedo and help combat climate change along with the other effects mentioned in the article. Bison and wolf reintroduction have been recent success stories.

    1. Bison and wolves are not extinct species. We did not create them, they are a natural part of the environments they have ‘re-wilded’. What they are proposing would be the creation of a whole new species, and there is really no way to tell how it would truly impact the environment over the long term.

      To give an extreme example, rabbits were introduced for hunting in Australia in the late 50’s. The results were a disaster for natural plants and animals across the continent. Just a few short years ago, grass carp were introduced in Lake Austin to eat the invasive hydrilla. Well, the grass carp got rid of the hydrilla, but they are now killing species of native fish and wreaking havoc on native water plants as well.

      We never learn.

      1. We introduce hybrids all the time. It would be introduced back into what was its native habitat. So if the bison had gone extinct, which they almost did, you would say don’t bring it back. The examples you gave were introduced into foreign habitats on different continents.

  4. Crazy idea. Asian elephants are quite intelligent. The female of the species is one of the few mammals on the planet who go through menopause and become elders.
    Is anyone feeling for the poor female elephant who will be forced to be the surrogate mom for a genetically modified woolly mammoth? Or, how many artificial wombs have we managed to develop recently? Mammal species need to bond with their offspring. Without that they are either not healthy or they do not survive. Once again, science has no idea what it is messing around with. We are not just biological machines.
    Why not take a sample of Neanderthal genome, genetically modifed to Sapiens Sapiens it a bit more and implant a human female with that instead? (Obviously my tongue is in my cheek.)

    1. You must be vegan. Great if you are. Livestock babies are ripped from their mothers regularly. I’d argue that the meat industry has made modern livestock biological machines.

  5. This isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation or the building of a dam. Mammoths had their shot and nature selected them for extinction.

  6. Such a bad idea that is conceived with the same mindset that created CAFO operations. The animals are given no more consideration than any other manufactured item. Maximize output with minimal input to achieve our targets of climate stability for human populations.

    We share this planet with wonderous beings most call animals of which we are one species. This wrong headed technological fix assumes that they will be just things that will do our bidding not creatures of heart and soul.

    Elephants have been shown to be very intelligent family oriented creatures who develop complex social and family structures. These relationships give everyone a place and maintain herd order and vitality. Why would the revived ancestors of said elephants be different or not need loving mentors to survive and thrive.

    Oh yes stupid me these are just biological machines designed to lower the temperature of tundra to limit methane emissions. Just because some scientists may be smart enough to do a thing doesn’t mean that it should be done. The A-bomb comes to mind and and no I’m not vegan.

  7. See Pleistocene Park for an example. Doesn’t seem like a CAFO to me.

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