We’re obsessed with bringing things back from the dead. We’ve tried to bring back dinosaurs, Sherlock — hell, someone out there is even trying to bring Iggy Azalea’s career back. It would be generous to say we’ve achieved mild success. Despite improvements in cloning techniques, bringing things back to life has remained elusive for a number of reasons. But now, evolutionary biologists at the University of Chicago might have taken us one step closer, reporting that they could theoretically “resurrect” a woolly mammoth.
One of the biggest issues scientists have faced in trying to clone extinct animals is the lack of intact DNA. To fully clone an animal, you need a perfectly preserved sample. Unfortunately, according to Beth Shapiro, author of the new book How to Clone a Mammoth, ancient DNA isn’t present in fossils, it’s ruined by amber, and it’s often too fragmented to use for full-genome sequencing. Yet she, like Vincent Lynch, co-author of the University of Chicago study, still thinks it’s possible to bring back the mammoth in some form.
Here’s how: The two animals diverged from a common ancestor just 5 million years ago, which is hardly a second in evolutionary time. What this means is that they share most of their DNA, with a handful of key distinctions. Woolly mammoths had genes that gave them shaggy fur, smaller ears, and distinct ways to break down fat, all of which helped them survive the extreme cold. The Asian elephants we know today live in hot climates and have longer tails and bigger ears to help them release heat. For the most part, however, the rest of their genomes match up — and this is what’s key to recreating a woolly mammoth.
Scientists haven’t been able to sequence the entire woolly mammoth genome from the fragmented DNA they’ve found, but they have been able to isolate some crucial genes. Using the fully sequenced Asian elephant genome as their base, they can simply splice in those mammoth genes to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid. Sound easy? Conceptually, it is, especially with the rise of CRISPR/Cas9 splicing technology, which Harvard scientist George Church has successfully used to splice in 14 mammoth genes into an elephant genome.
The trickier part will be getting that genome into elephant pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to turn into any kind of cell. After that, scientists will have to figure out how to get a regular old elephant to give birth to its mash-up offspring. We probably won’t be seeing these hybrids running around anytime soon, but as scientists get better at splicing together a “woolly elephant” genome, they’ll no doubt also consider how to physically bring it into the world.
The real question is: Why would we do it, outside of the only partially compelling holy shit factor? Church thinks this could lead to a new species of elephant that could better survive cold environments — which, as humans continue to ravage their habitats, elephants might someday be forced into. This idea of ‘de-extinction’ is getting a lot of attention these days, supported as well by scientists like Shapiro. Lynch, however, is a bit more skeptical. “It won’t be that long till we’re technically able to do it,” he said in an interview with LiveScience, “But whether we should is a different question.”