Woolly mammoths could be brought back from extinction in the form of elephant-mammoth hybrids within six years, a new science project has claimed.
Once inhabiting much of Europe, North America and northern Asia, the iconic Ice Age species went into terminal decline some 10,000 years ago.
The demise of the creatures — which can grow to some 11 to 12 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons — has been linked by our ancestors to warming climates and hunting.
Now a US-based life sciences and genetics company, Colossal, has managed to raise $15 million (£10.8 million) in funding to bring back this prehistoric giant.
The program — not the first to propose mammoth “extinction” — is being set up as a way to help conserve Asian elephants by adapting them to life in the Arctic.
The team also claimed that introducing hybrids to the Arctic steppe could help restore degraded habitat and combat some of the impacts of climate change.
In particular, they claimed that the mix of elephants and mammoths would knock down trees and help restore Arctic grasslands — which keep the ground cool.
It would also help these environments to better capture greenhouse gases.
Colossal is the brainchild of Texan tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and the pioneering but controversial geneticist George Church of Harvard Medical School.
Woolly mammoths (pictured in this artist’s impression) could be brought back from extinction in the form of elephant-mammoth hybrids within six years, researchers have claimed
To create an elephant-woolly mammoth hybrid, researchers would take DNA from ancient specimens and combine it with artificial elephant stem cells to create a hybrid embryo. This would come about in a surrogate mother or in an artificial womb
Colossal is the brainchild of Texas tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church. Pictured: Mr Lamm (left) posing with Professor Church (right)
CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA.
The technique involves a DNA-cutting enzyme and a small tag that tells the enzyme where to cut.
By editing this tag, scientists can target the enzyme to specific regions of DNA and make precise cuts wherever they want.
It has been used to silence genes – effectively turning them off.
However, the system can also be used to add new genetic code at precise locations along the genome.
“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it will look and act like a mammoth,” said Professor Church. the guard.
“Not because we want to fool anyone, but because we want something functionally equivalent to the mammoth.”
The hybrid strain, he explained, would ‘enjoy its time at -40°C’ [-40°F], and do all the things elephants and mammoths do, especially knock down trees.’
“Our goal is not just to bring the mammoth back, but to bring herds that have been successfully reintroduced back to the wild, to the Arctic, but also to bring interbred herds back to the Arctic,” said Lamm. .
Whether Asian elephants really want to try breeding with the hybrid creatures, however, remains to be seen.
“Maybe we should shave them a little,” Church joked.
To create an elephant-mammoth hybrid, the Colossal researchers would first need to sequence the woolly mammoth’s genome from a well-preserved specimen — such as one recovered after being frozen in permafrost.
They would then compare the ancient genome with that of modern Asian elephants to identify the parts of DNA that code for the mammoth’s cold-climate adaptations — such as hair, insulating layers of fat and cold tolerant blood.
This useful genetic material would then be added to Asian elephant stem cells — which are themselves made by modifying the animals’ skin cells — using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool and implanted into an Asian elephant egg cell. .
This egg would then be stimulated into an embryo and brought to term in a surrogate elephant mother or, alternatively, in an artificial uterus.
Woolly mammoths are one of the best understood prehistoric animals known to science, as their remains are often not fossilized, but frozen and preserved — which also means we can study their DNA. Pictured: ‘Yuka’, the best-preserved woolly mammoth found in Siberia in 2010. Experts think the Yuka was 6-8 years old when it died
The practicalities — and ethics — of retrieving extinct species such as the woolly mammoth have been debated for more than a decade.
Assuming it’s possible, however, some experts have expressed skepticism that creating elephant-mammoth hybrids is the best way to restore the Arctic tundra.
“The idea that you could geoengineer the Arctic environment using mammoths is not plausible,” Natural History evolutionary biologist Victoria Herridge told The Guardian.
“The scale at which you would have to do this experiment is huge,” she added.
“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths, each taking 22 months to conceive and 30 years to mature.”
“While we need a multitude of different approaches to halt climate change, we also need to responsibly initiate solutions to prevent unintended harmful effects,” said University of Sheffield ecologist Gareth Phoenix.
“That’s a huge challenge in the vast Arctic, where you have different ecosystems under different environmental conditions.”
Adding elephant and mammoth hybrids to the equation could have unexpected consequences, he warned.
‘We know in the forested Arctic regions that trees and moss layers can be crucial in protecting permafrost.
“So removing the trees and trampling the moss would be the last thing you want to do,” he warned.
WOOL MAMMOT EXPLAINED
Male woolly mammoths were about 3.5 meters long, while the females were slightly smaller.
They had curved tusks up to 5 meters long and their underbelly boasted a coat of shaggy hair up to 1 meter long.
Small ears and short tails prevented vital body heat from being lost.
Their trunks had ‘two fingers’ at the end to pluck grass, twigs and other vegetation.
They got their name from the Russian ‘mammut’, or earth mole, because the animals were thought to live underground and died on contact with light – which explains why they were always found dead and half-buried.
It was once believed that their bones belonged to extinct giant races.
Woolly mammoths and modern elephants are closely related, sharing 99.4 percent of their genes.
The two species followed different evolutionary paths six million years ago, about the same time humans and chimpanzees went their separate ways.
Woolly mammoths coexisted with early humans, who hunted them for food and used their bones and tusks to make weapons and art.
The ‘de-extinction’ of the mammoth has become a realistic prospect thanks to revolutionary gene-editing techniques that enable the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen in Siberian ice for millennia.
The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012.
The system makes it possible to ‘cut and paste’ strands of DNA with unprecedented precision.
Using this technique, scientists were able to cut and paste conserved mammoth DNA in Asian elephants to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid.
Mammoths roamed the tundra of Europe and North America for 140,000 years and went into decline at the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago.
While most mammoths became extinct during that time, small and isolated populations are believed to have survived in locations such as Saint Paul Island (Alaska) and Wrangel Island (in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 5,600 and 4,000 years ago.
They are one of the best understood prehistoric animals known to science, as their remains are often not fossilized, but frozen and preserved.