26 September 2021

The Verge: “The controversial science behind woolly mammoth de-extinction”

A flashy new biotech startup launched yesterday called Colossal is on a mission to make an elephant-woolly mammoth mashup — with the ultimate goal of promoting biodiversity and combating climate change, it says. The effort has gotten a lot of hype and big-name backers, but scientists who work in conservation are still pretty skeptical.

The science behind Colossal is in very early stages and is mired in ethical quandaries. The company won’t actually bring back a woolly mammoth, which hasn’t roamed the Earth in about 10,000 years. Instead, Colossal’s de-extinction effort aims to create a hybrid between a woolly mammoth and its distant relative (the two share a common ancestor): the Asian elephant, which itself is an endangered species.

Lamm believes Colossal’s work might benefit the elephants and draw more attention to other conservation efforts. We’re trying to make sure that we do this in the most transparent and ethical way as possible, Lamm tells The Verge. We feel very confident about what we can do to help the elephant lineage… For us it’s about giving the species additional tools to survive. An elephant with mammoth traits would be better able to survive in the Arctic’s cold temperatures, away from urbanization that threatens its species, he says.

But Asian elephants’ home is tropical South and Southeast Asia. They’re also highly intelligent and social animals that form tight-knit groups. They have a culture, Bennett says. All that raises “major” ethical questions for Bennett over whether a mammoth-elephant hybrid would be able to behaviorally manage being transplanted in a new home that’s vastly different from where elephant species currently live.

Justine Calma

A highly ambitious project that I would like to see succeed – but realistically I would give it about as much chance of materializing as Elon Musk’s random wild ideas.

A reconstructed woolly mammoth
Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) retreated to eastern Siberia by the end of the Ice age, about 10,000 years ago, then died out. A staple of museum dioramas, they’re candidates for rebirth—with elephants as surrogate mothers. Reconstruction, Natural History Gallery, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

The list of hurdles to surpass is quite impressive: first create a genetic hybrid embryo of a mammal – something that, to my knowledge, has never been accomplished before on this scale. Not to mention scientists would need to harvest elephant eggs for the genetic modifications, then implant the hybrid embryos into surrogate female elephants – apparently none of these steps have been achieved before either. Alternatively, the company plans to create an artificial uterus to gestate the embryos – this alone would be a massive feat of medical engineering that could revolutionize the livestock industry (or even human society, if these can be ultimately adapted to grow human embryos).

But the issues do not stop at birth: baby elephants grow up in close family groups, learning many behaviors needed for their survival. This would not be possible for the baby hybrids – even if a regular Asian elephant female were to adopt them, she would not be able to teach them anything about life in a tundra. Growing them to adulthood would be an arduous task by itself, riddled with many setbacks and dead ends.

And if the team of scientists would be able to make it this far, in two–three decades (maybe), who is to say if these surrogate mammoths will have an ecosystem to inhabit by then? Climate change is accelerating, and by mid-century Siberia could be populated by climate migrants from equatorial regions, who would not be keen to share their tight living space with prehistorical beasts. Are we resurrecting the mammoth simply to drive it extinct again?

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