Woolly mammoths could return to life on Earth, if they counted on a group of scientists and entrepreneurs who had already received US$15 million (about R$78 million) from sponsors for this.
The amount allocated to Colossal will help develop genetic engineering techniques that will be able to create a hybrid of mammoth with an Asian elephant, getting as close as possible to the mammoths that once inhabited the planet. After achieving this goal, the next step will be to populate parts of Siberia with these animals, in search of ecological rebalancing.
“It’s going to make a huge difference in the world,” said famous biologist George Church, from Harvard Medical School in the United States, in an interview with the American newspaper The New York Times.
Over the past eight years, Church has spent much of his time running the project along with other enthusiasts of the idea. The starting point for the work will be genetic material from the remains of a frozen mammoth that died thousands of years ago.
But there are also those who oppose the idea, citing ethical problems in saving giant animals from extinction. There is also the unpredictability of how these mammoths would behave on Earth today. “There are a lot of problems that everyone will have along the way,” Beth Shapiro, a paleontologist at the University of California, told the New York Times.
The origin of the idea
The idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth was first articulated by Church in 2013. At the time, researchers were studying DNA fragments found in fossils in an effort to reassemble the genomes of extinct species.
Church, who studies new ways to read and edit DNA, wondered: Is it possible to bring extinct species back to life by adapting a nearby genome that exists today?
Mammoths seem to be your best candidates because they are close ancestors of today’s Asian elephants: they share a common ancestor that lived about 6 million years ago. Moreover, mammoth DNA can be easily found in Siberia.
The biologist says that mammoths can also help restore ecological balance: Global warming has caused warming in the Siberian and North American tundra, accelerating the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide.
In the tundra today, it is mostly algae, but in the time of the mammoth, there was pasture. Biologists believe that the mammoth served as a keeper of this ecosystem, maintaining pastures by removing moss, breaking down trees, and leaving abundant droppings to fertilize the soil. With the return of these animals, all of this can be restored and carbon dioxide emissions contained.
The initial ideas of the scientist attracted the attention of journalists, but not investors: he managed to raise only $ 100,000 (520,000 Brazilian reals) for his research. “Honestly, I intended to work at a slow pace,” Church said.
However, in 2019, Ben Lamm met the founder of Texas AI Hypergiant, who, after reading news about the project, became interested in helping to save this giant animal. “After a day in the lab and a lot of time with George, we were so excited,” said Lamm, who then went on to start Colossal.
Two “Resurrection” techniques
Extinct animals can be brought back to life in two ways: cloning and genetic engineering. The first method is well known for the example of Dolly the sheep, cloned in 1997. In this process, DNA from one animal is injected into the fertilized egg of another donor animal, and then the egg is implanted into a surrogate mother.
This method was already tried with the Bocardo, or Pyrenean ibex, officially declared extinct in 2000. Three years after its disappearance from the face of the earth, from the animal’s frozen skin, its DNA was extracted and cloned. A surrogate mother of a goat has given birth to a caribou – the first time an extinct species has been revived.
Unfortunately, it was also the first case of a double extinction, in which the chick lived for only seven minutes.
There are many well-preserved mammoth remains in Egypt permafrost From Siberia, but its DNA is usually damaged by the long freezing period. Scientists have already decoded the mammoth’s genome, but they haven’t been able to get the full genetic sequence as it was when the animal existed.
This is where a second resurrection method, called CRISPR gene-editing technology, can come in handy. In it, certain genes that allowed mammoths to survive at high latitudes are inserted into the genome of their closest living relative, the Asian elephant.
Next, the modified genome is implanted into a fertilized elephant egg, which is then transplanted into a surrogate mother. From there, a hybrid of elephant and mammoth is expected to be born.
There are of course major difficulties, such as the fact that scientists don’t know exactly what genes are needed for survival in the Arctic. They know the animal must be covered in fur, have an oval skull and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat – but everything else remains in question.
Today, nearly one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction. According to Lamm, if the Colossal project is successful, it will pave the way for the “genetic salvation” of various organisms.
This term refers to the process of increasing the genetic diversity of endangered species through cloning or genetic engineering. Lamm says the Mammoth Project is a kind of “experimental balloon”.
Even if this giant is not returned to Earth, technologies that can prevent the species from extinction will be developed and licensed or sold – after all, the company is commercial, not charitable.
So the mammoth revival project can be seen as a kind of incubator for the development of genetic engineering and intellectual property, which may be easier to see at birth than a living woolly mammoth.
You have seen our new videos on Youtube? Subscribe to our channel!
“Music fanatic. Professional problem solver. Reader. Award-winning tv ninja.”