Are woolly mammoths a solution to the furry problem of climate change?

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The last woolly mammoth probably wandered about 4,000 years ago. Modern humans have lived alongside animals for thousands of years — and before that, Neanderthals used woolly mammoths for almost anything they could imagine: food, shelter, tools, art. The oldest known musical instrument in the world, a flute, was made from mammoth ivory.

In the very near future, however, humans may once again cross paths with the extinct beasts.

Colossal Biosciences, a Texas-based biotech startup, is at the forefront of reintroducing the woolly mammoth to the world — or some version of it. The company plans to create mammoth-elephant hybrid calves by 2027. These animals will be reintroduced to Pleistocene Parka Russian nature reserve in Siberia, where attempts are being made to recreate the grasslands that flourished during the last ice age.

Colossal describes hybrids as a vital defender of the land. According to the company, they will slow the melting of Arctic permafrost (preventing the emission of greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost) and transform shrub forests into natural Arctic grasslands, fostering an ecosystem that could maintain its own defenses against change. climatic. The ultimate goal? Save the future of the world by going back in world history.

Extinction

Colossal was co-founded last year by a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School St. George’s Church, whose work includes the genetic modification of pigs, and tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm. They think bringing the mammoth back is drastic, but also doable. “We are ushering in a thoughtful wave of restorative biology to eradicate a species, protect endangered species, and regenerate [reintroduce] degraded ecosystems,” says Lamm. “It’s revolutionary. We control a science that has the power to reverse and prevent biodiversity loss.


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Of course, society will not so much resurrect the woolly mammoth as it will “de-extinguish” woolly mammoth genes to create cold-hardy elephants with all of the basic phenotypic traits of the woolly mammoth. Curiously, the woolly mammoth shares 99.6% of his DNA with the modern-day Asian elephant. Colossal aims to develop a hybrid species using CRISPRbreakthrough gene-editing technology, to integrate key mammoth genetic traits into the Asian elephant genome.

The Indian elephant, one of the three subspecies of the Asian elephant. (Credit: Anastasia Lembrik/Shutterstock)

These key traits include a 10 centimeter thick layer of insulating fat, five different types of shaggy hair, and smaller ears to help the hybrid animal tolerate the cold weather characteristic of the Pleistocene park. “This gives us the opportunity to reintroduce this critical species into a degrading ecosystem to combat the effects of climate change in a new and disruptive way,” Lamm said.

Risks and Rewards

All this is not without risk or controversy. As the famous character Ian Malcolm quotes in jurassic park“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should.” Some other scientists fear that the new species will become invasive, affecting native species, communities and ecosystems through competition, browsing and disease facilitation.

It’s also unclear how much of an impact mammoths will have on the fight against climate change. There will certainly not be many animals initially, and an elephant’s gestation period is two long years — so that the calves do not appear for a certain time. Also, the process of recreating a mammoth isn’t particularly easy, or cheap. (The company was launched with $15 million in funding from investors, but recently raised another $60 million to accelerate its growth.)

Then there are the ethical and moral implications of “raising” the dead. “We have worked carefully and diligently on building an advisory board of geneticists, bioethicists, scientists and environmental advocates to foster ongoing dialogue with industry experts as well as the general public. says Lamm. While he’s thrilled to see woolly mammoths roaming the arctic tundra again, he’s more excited about creating new conservation tools.

A recent United Nations report shows that almost a million species are at risk of extinction over the next few decades, especially if no drastic action is taken. Lamm and others believe that Colossal’s biotechnology could even be used to genetically modify these other species, of all types, so that they are better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change. The company recently partnered with Vertebrate Genomes Project genetically preserve the Asian elephant, the African elephant and the forest elephant through genomic sequencing.

Ultimately, humans could once again walk alongside a version of the woolly mammoth – right into a future engineered by today’s scientists.

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