Could humans revive the woolly mammoth
How we bring the woolly mammoth back to life
In Jurassic Park we saw a future in which it would be possible to bring the dinosaurs back to life. That fiction could now become a reality as geneticists seek to bring back the woolly mammoth.
These Ice Age herbivores, whose closest living relatives are Asian elephants, lived on several northern continents and had long, thick fur that protected them from the extreme cold. The shaggy animals died out about 4,000 years ago. The current revolution in genetics - fighting the aging process, eradicating disease, and even allowing parents to create "designer babies" - could change that.
Ben Mezrich is the author of the new book "Woolly: The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Species" Wollig: The true story of the mission to revive one of history's most iconic extinct species). It takes the reader from the laboratory to the Siberian steppe, while scientists explore the possibilities of reviving the woolly mammoth in its natural environment - and ecosystems that may be threatened with it.
National Geographic spoke to Mezrich over the phone, who explained why some people believe the woolly mammoth could help fight climate change. He also spoke about the ethical concerns behind this great pursuit.
The idea of resuscitating a woolly mammoth sounds like something out of a Michael Crichton novel. Is this really happening? And how would that be a revolution for science?
It really feels like a Michael Crichton story! [Laughs.] But it's true! What he wrote in Jurassic Park is now scientifically possible. We have these genetic tools these days, specifically CRISPR, which is a revolution in genetic engineering. It enables us to insert individual genes for specific traits into the genome of a living being.
That's what's happening at the Woolly Mammoth Project right now. We used to just read DNA. Now we've got to the point where we can write them. The world we live in will be a different place in 30 years' time because of the things that are already happening in laboratories today. People talk about various technologies such as the Internet, artificial intelligence or robotics. But I believe all of this is dwarfed by what's happening in the field of biology right now. As soon as you can redesign genes, build the building blocks of life, there is no telling what you can do.
The driving force behind the American endeavors to create a woolly mammoth is a giant, bearded geneticist named George Church. Draw us a character picture and describe the project he is leading.
It definitely looks like it came out of a Hollywood movie. He is over two meters tall and has a huge beard and a halo of white hair - as one would imagine God [laughs]. He grew up in the swamps off Tampa, Florida and was raised by his single mother. At twelve, George began to believe he was from the future and living in the past. His job is to make the world the world he came from.
He is like the Einstein of today. He was the youngest scientist to join the Human Genome Project, where he developed faster ways to sequence the human genome and read genes.
The other pole of his initiative is the Siberian steppe. Tell us about the father-son team Sergei and Nikita Zimov and the idea behind the Pleistocene Park.
The big question is: why should you make a woolly mammoth? The answer to this can be found in Russia. The Siberian steppes are these large areas of land with permafrost soils [which have lost much of their animal populations]. That was not always so. And the problem is, the tundra is a ticking time bomb. There is more carbon in permafrost than burning down all of the world's forests three times. And as the world warms up, we're getting closer and closer to that point [where the permafrost thaws] and the time bomb goes off.
Sergei and his son Nikita have been running this experiment since the 1980s, fencing off an area on the tundra and reintroducing animals from the Pleistocene there. These include reindeer, bison and Yakut horses. They also have a Russian tank designed to replace a mammoth. They discovered that reintroducing these animals can lower the permafrost temperature. This is because the large herbivores promote the growth of the steppe grass, which in turn has a high reflectivity. The light grass reflects the sunlight back into the atmosphere like a mirror. In this way they reduce the heat that is absorbed by the earth and thus keep temperatures lower. This means that less permafrost is thawing.
I was surprised that there were enough woolly mammoths in the permafrost to support the ivory trade. Tell us about it and about the Yakut indigenous people.
As the permafrost slowly thaws, woolly mammoths appear everywhere. Their tusks are worth about $ 250,000 each. So there is a big trade in mammoth ivory, especially in China. It's legal because it's not an endangered species. It's an extinct species. It is very dangerous to collect [the ivory]. [The Yakuts] set out in their boats across the icy water to get to the small islands where the carcasses are numerous. There they dig out the tusks. But they can take care of an entire Yakut village for a year if they can find one of them.
Give us a little guide for laypeople on the scientific challenges that must be overcome in creating a woolly mammoth. And when is it that time?
The science [behind] is really cool. The first thing to do is sequence the genome of a prehistoric mammoth. You get frozen carcasses out of the ice - you take a sample and sequence the genome. Once you have the sequence, you know the mammoth genome, so you look for the characteristics that make a mammoth a mammoth. 99 percent of their genome is similar to that of the Asian elephant. Church's laboratory therefore believes that a woolly mammoth and an Asian elephant that mate could produce offspring. In contrast to “Jurassic Park”, you don't clone woolly mammoths. The material in the carcasses has been degraded by radiation and poor conditions for 3,000 to 12,000 years.
Instead, you synthesize the genes, insert them into an Asian elephant embryo, insert the embryo into an Asian elephant, and the elephant then gives birth to the woolly mammoth. Church's lab is also working on a synthetic uterus. The goal is to have the first mammoth baby in two or three years.
The idea of concocting new forms of life in laboratories may seem to some like Frankenstein's science or an attempt to play god. What about the ethical - and biological - concerns?
That's a great question. You have to think about these things in a big way before you finally do them because science can get ahead of ethics. In this case, I believe - and I think most conservationists will agree - that bringing back an extinct species has less to do with playing with God and is more a correction of something we caused. And scientists play god every day. If you are trying to cure cancer or eradicate malaria, you are making big life decisions.
The scariest thing about it is that we don't have a real supervisory board. Laboratories all over the world are doing this kind of thing. Most scientists believe there is a need for some oversight, whether from the scientific community itself or on a government basis. It is difficult because it affects many countries.
There is a shock at the end of the book when they write that a Korean-Russian team found a mammoth that still has blood in its veins. Is that really true? And how does their plan differ from that of the Americans?
Korean company Sooam Biotech was founded by a scientist who was disgraced for falsely claiming to have cloned human cells. He reinvented himself by starting this company that clones dogs. He's also trying to bring the woolly mammoth back. His goal is to find mammoth material that is in such good condition that it is suitable for cloning. Other scientists believe that this is not possible. But allegedly a Russian team the company works with found a woolly mammoth that was half stuck in the ice. It must have frozen in shock and was in such good condition that it still had liquid blood when they pulled it out of the ice.
Whether this is true or not is difficult to tell. The material was hidden in a secret room in a Russian university. But if it really does exist, if this mammoth is in such good condition that it still has liquid blood, then maybe this material could be cloned and turned into a mammoth. George and his team don't think that's possible.
But who knows?
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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