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Can woolly mammoths really be brought back from extinction?

Colossal, a biotech company based in Dallas Texas, has an ambitious plan that sounds more like a movie plot than a scientific endeavour. To bring woolly mammoths back from extinction and re-introduce them into the wilderness of the Sakha Republic in north-eastern Siberia, Russia by 2027.

Herd of Woolly Mammoths in the vast mammoth steppe during the last Ice age.

Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Mammoths once inhabited vast areas in the northern hemisphere, from Canada to China. Standing as tall as 4m, mammoths survived as a species for millions of years, their numbers only beginning to diminish around 15,000 years ago, going extinct around 4,000 years ago.

The last surviving population lived on an isolated arctic island off the coast of northern Russia in 1650 BC, over 1000 years after the Pyramids were built and during a time when human civilizations were firmly established all over the world.

Although the exact location of the reintroduction has recently come into question- due to political considerations such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine- the company still aims to bring back the mammoth in 2027. With a location in Alaska now being considered.

Colossal, the company planning the reintroduction, has a very ambitious and aspirational ethos. With its website describing itself as ‘The De-extinction Company’ and its actions as “on behalf of humanity, the animal kingdom” and even “the Universe at large”, which seems to suggest the startup sees itself as acting in the will of some higher power.

It also compares its aim of re-introducing the mammoth to the northern steppe to landing a man on the moon. It’s clear the company has a lot of aspiration, and this naturally brings up the question of if it’s really possible.

And for anybody who has watched Jurassic Park- which keeps coming up in news articles talking about the plan despite it being a fictional movie- is it desirable?

The company itself seems to think so, having obtained an extra $60 million in funding towards their goal, but it faces more hurdles if it is to successfully clone an extinct species and produce a viable population in the wild.

The science around cloning non extinct animals is established, and animals have been cloned, with Dolly the Sheep being a well-known example- the first ever cloned mammal in 1996. But even this technology is limited.

The Roslin Institute- a world leading animal research institute that cloned Dolly the Sheep- explains that the cloning technology used has a low success rate and is not very refined, with risks of birth defects and reduced life spans.

And this process is made considerably harder by the fact that Mammoths have been extinct for 4,000 years. As the Roslin Institute points out “finding enough cells from an endangered or extinct species as well as a suitable source of recipient egg cells and surrogate mothers poses a considerable challenge”.

Dolly the sheep, the first ever animal to be cloned in 1996 is now on display in Edinburgh.

Credits: Lost in Scotland, Flickr

However, Colossal’s scientists have laid out a plan on the company’s website about how they hope to make it work. The company was the first to sequence the Asian Elephant genome using collected DNA in 2022. Now it aims to sequence the mammoth genome with viable tissue samples, and genetically combine synthetic mammoth DNA with Asian elephant DNA to add traits like cold resistance.

This will effectively create hybrid cells that act as mammoth cells. Then the company will use SCNT (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer) cloning technology to replace Asian Elephant egg cells’ nuclei with nuclei from the newly edited hybrid cells. Effectively, creating an Asian Elephant egg that contains the same genetic traits as a woolly mammoth.

The egg is then artificially fertilised and “begins to divide and grow, becoming an embryo”, this is the same technology and process used to create Dolly the sheep. Once the hybrid embryo forms it will be cloned and transferred into a surrogate Asian Elephant mother. Then finally, the first woolly mammoth in 4000 years will be born.

A Lot of money, time and work is needed for these steps, and the science for much of it is on the cutting edge of what’s possible. But no part of the planned process seems to be beyond what is possible.

Perhaps the biggest challenges come in terms of ethical concerns as well as the difficulty in fully sequencing the mammoth's DNA. It’s not clear what the impact of reintroducing woolly mammoths back into the arctic ecosystem would be. Especially given how different the landscape is from 15,000 years ago.

The Alaskan Tundra has not been home to mammoths since the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. Credits: Pixabay

But many scientists including those at Colossal like co-founder geneticist Dr Georg Church and Dr Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist, have argued for reintroducing mammoths into Arctic ecosystems, stating this could result in balance being brought back to them and a more productive environment.

These debates will no doubt continue as Colossal continues to try and make history. Even if it takes them longer than 2027, a world where humans reintroduce extinct species as impressive as mammoths back into ecosystems through cloning and genetic editing technology would mark a new age of human advancement.


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