We May Resurrect The Mammoth Sooner Than You Think

Of all the varied and incredible possibilities presented by the controversial new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, perhaps the most intriguing are efforts to bring animals back from extinction. Candidates for de-extinction, as the process is known, include species like the passenger pigeon (the last one died in captivity in 1914), the dodo (last seen in 1662) and the sea cow (1768, a mere 27 years after it had been discovered by Europeans.)

These projects are not pipe dreams.

Dr. George Church, a molecular biologist at Harvard University who is working on such projects, estimates that a variation of the first new woolly mammoth (which disappeared some 4,000 years ago) may be born as soon as seven years from now. Like other proponents of de-extinction, he hopes the animals will play a key role in slowing or reversing climate change.

If you’ve seen “Jurassic Park” (and is there anyone who hasn’t?), you’re already familiar with the basic idea behind how it would work. First, scientists would retrieve DNA from the frozen remains of a woolly mammoth that was preserved for centuries in the frozen tundra. Then they would splice that DNA into an Asian elephant genome — a step that Church’s lab completed earlier this year. The two species are so closely related, Church said, that if mammoths were alive today, they could successfully breed with elephants. If Asian elephants’ DNA were tweaked to more closely resemble that of their ancient relatives, they might be able to give birth to a furrier, fattier hybrid.

A month after Church’s lab announced its gene-splicing success, an international group of scientists published a paper showing they had sequenced the woolly mammoth’s entire genome, drawing a “road map” for changing an Asian elephant’s chromosome to make it more mammoth-like. With CRISPR, making those changes —> Read More