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Should the mammoth make a grand return at all?13 min read

September 30, 2021 8 min read

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Should the mammoth make a grand return at all?13 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Click on this image for Part 1 of this story.
George Church holds the fossil of a mammoth. Image: Colossal.com

Alright then, you’ve been acquainted with the mammophant, and met George Church. You’ve even heard about his big plan to bring thousands of woolly mammoths back to this world. But how? Read on to find out.

how is that even possible neil degrasse tyson GIF by StarTalk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson

The mammophant recipe

You were probably quite startled to learn that the mammophant was an odd blend between an elephant and a woolly mammoth. How do you blend two creatures together?

Let alone the fact that one of them doesn’t even exist anymore!

Step 1 : Splice it up

DNA gene splicing (CL) | 3D Warehouse
Image: 3D Warehouse

Well, the first step is to slice up the elephant’s DNA and prep it for a good shakedown. George Church and his team will pop open the genetic code of the cell of an elephant and cut it up. In order to do that, scientists will use scissors.

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No, not this kind. Genetic scissors. They will use a special biological tool known as CRISPR that can slice up and re-arrange the structure of the microscopic DNA!

The Dilemma of Genome Editing – The Patriot
Image: The Patriot
Reflections on the CRISPR journey from conception to Nobel Prize and  beyond... | Laboratory News

This technology is so mind-blowing that its creators were awarded a Nobel prize in Chemistry for their invention.

Step 2: Redecorate

Next up, scientists will do some redecorating in the elephant DNA. That’s right! The time has come for some gene editing. Over the years scientists have discovered some enough woolly mammoth DNA to identify several of their genes and the recipes that they held. And now, scientists will play around with the sequence of the elephant DNA to include these mammoth genes in the elephant cells.

Elephants and Mammoths share 99.6% of their DNA. Yet, there are over 4 million differences between the two creatures.

Leveraging CRISPR To Develop Gene Editing Tools | Bayer
A graphic representation on Gene editing. Image: Bayer

For instance, instead of a grey hairless body, this modified elephant cell will then go on to produce a brown hairy creature.

New theory about woolly mammoth extinction revealed - CBBC Newsround
Image: BBC
140 Baby In The Womb Silhouettes Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

In order to create the cells for a new creature, scientists can’t just go about snip-snapping any old elephant cells. They must modify the egg cell of an elephant. All babies are formed after the fertilisation or activation of an animal’s egg cell via the genes from another cell. You, too, were created in this way.

Step 3: Divide and Grow

Next, scientists must create the right conditions to activate the newly modified egg cell to get it to start dividing and reproducing. The new mass of cells that will be formed will be the worlds first mammophant embryo.

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A human embryo being created in a lab.

Some human embryos are grown in labs too! After a short stint in the lab, these embryos are inserted back into their mother’s womb. Nonetheless, once these babies are born, there is no difference between them and any other healthy baby.

Step 4: It’s baby time!

So far, scientists have collected DNA fragments of the woolly mammoth and pieced together some of its genes. Followed by that, they have popped open the DNA code of the Asian elephant egg cell and changed it up. Then, they created an embryo. Now comes the trickiest part. Scientists must use the genes of the woolly mammoth to produce the worlds first mammophant baby.

How does it feel to know that you could be created in a test-tube?
.

George’s wild ideas

To do this, George Church and his team have had all sorts of ideas. They decided that they would try to put the lab-created embryo into a mother elephant’s womb.

MAMMOTHS, HUMANS, HUNTING AND CLONING | Facts and Details
Image: Facts and Ideas

However, since the mammophant and elephant don’t belong to the same species, this could prove to be tricky or even impossible.

So, instead, Colossal’s proposal is to create an artificial womb that can nourish and grow the embryo in the lab. Researchers have once successfully created an artificial womb for a sheep. However, that was only needed for four weeks. The womb for the mammophant will have to nourish the baby for two whole years!

An artificial womb successfully grew baby sheep — and humans could be next  - The Verge
An artificial womb for a lamb. Image: The Guardian

Despite all the uncertainty, George Church is quite certain that in just six short years, the front page of every newspaper will be splashed with the picture of the first de-extinct woolly mammoth.

But Why?

Why do this at all? Is all this just George Church’s way of playing God? Or, is there something more to it?

Well, it depends on who you ask. If you were to ask the scientists who are setting up the project, they would say: We are overturning the horrible effects of Climate change, of course! Wait.. what now?

“It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”

George Church

Cooling the ice

When the Woolly Mammoth roamed the planet, it hung around in the cold and ice-covered land of the Arctic tundra. And scientists have reason to believe that one of the reasons that the Arctic ice cover was once so thick was, in fact, the Woolly Mammoth. 

Poop Fart Sticker
Woolly Mammoth’s farts were rather cooling!

Just kidding, although that would have been great! According to George Church and his fellow researchers, the woolly mammoth kept the frozen ice of the Arctic frozen by walking on it. They believe that the ginormous mammoths would wear down the top layer of snow and, therefore, allow the cold arctic air to hit the soil. This cool soil, in turn, would prevent the ice above it from melting. That way, the top layer of the snow can’t insulate and warm the Earth causing the ice to melt. 

Wait a minute! Snow warms the ice!? Yup, snow is an insulator. Much like a warm blanket, snow traps heat underneath it. That’s why Eskimos famously make little igloos or homes out of snow bricks. These snowy shelters trap the available heat in the worlds coldest corners and keep Eskimos warm in freezing temperatures.

Pin on Eskimos & Igloos
An eskimo stands outside his igloo. Image: Pinterest

De-extinction–De-forestation

That’s not all. The scientists at Colossal have floated theories about how the woolly mammoth can destroy moss and trees and allow grasses to grow in the region. They believe that these grasses will use up far more climate-warming carbon than the trees. 

However, none of these theories has been proven. And many scientists believe that re-introducing the woolly mammoth could do more harm than good for the climate. The new mammoths could trample and kill the trees, and there is no guarantee that grasses will grow in their wake. 

2017 Arctic sea ice minimum comes in at eighth smallest on record | NOAA  Climate.gov
Satellite image of the ice melting in the arctic. Image: NOAA

Lastly, 95% of the permafrost (permanent ice) in the Arctic has melted in just the last 30 years. And the rate of its decline is only increasing, so even if Church’s ideas do pan out, several scientists fear that it will be far too little too late. Moreover, they worry that it will pull our focus away from more drastic and needed solutions. The need of the hour, they claim, is to cut down global warming at its source. 

Grasslands More Reliable Carbon Sink than Trees - Science and Climate
Grasses seem to absorb far more carbon than trees. Image: UC Davis

Scientists believe that human-caused warming and hunting were some of the main causes behind the extinction of the woolly mammoth.

A woolly apocalypse

Bringing back the woolly mammoth isn’t cheap. Colossal has already collected 15 million dollars to spend on the project. That’s over 100 crore rupees! And that’s not all. This sum of money is only the initial amount that will be required to kickstart this daring venture. So, the question remains, are we paying for our own doom?

Jurassic Park GIF by Vidiots
A clip from the hit movie, Jurassic Park.

No, it’s unlikely we’ll have a Jurassic Park scenario with deadly mammoth’s coming to torment, trample and gobble us up. For one thing, the woolly Mammoth was a friendly giant.  

It’s still an animal 

However, how fair is it for us to bring back an animal about whom we know so very little? That’s right, the mammophant will be alive with feelings and needs like us all. So, is it fair to only think of it as a tool as we set about creating it?

UK wants to legally recognise that animals have feelings - Owlivers Post

We may have some genes of the mammoth, but we don’t have a complete picture. The new creature, the mammophant, will also have the genes of an elephant. Will it survive the freezing Tundra? 

Oh so lonely

If not, will the mammopant be lonely? Both elephants and mammoths were social animals, so when the first mammophant is finally born, will the elephants accept it into their families and care for it?

“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time. Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”

Heather Brown, Philosopher

A new trampler in town

Moreover, what about the impact that this will have on the other little creatures currently populating the Siberian Tundra? Mammophants would possibly come in and trample creatures that currently thrive in the region.

Is your brain muddled with all these questions and arguments? Don’t worry! Read this imaginary chat between George Church and a scientists who just won’t buy his idea for a quick recap.

A learning experience

There is no end to the number of ethical questions an attempt like this raises, but in the process of this mammoth de-extinction effort, we could learn a lot. We could learn how to save endangered species, make our genes stronger, help our own babies, maybe even cure deadly diseases. Climate change is working fast and animals have trouble keeping up. With the technology we gain from here, we could even help endangered species change their genes to be able to survive climate change.

“I worry that for lots of species today, the pace of climate change and the pace of habitat degradation is such that evolution isn’t going to be able to save them.”

Beth Shapiro

However, the biggest question of all is: Will Colossal and George Church be able to pull this off?

With Excerpts From: The New York Times, The New York Times, NPR, Tech crunch, Tech crunch, The Wire Science, and Colossal.com

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