Since 2015, a team of Harvard scientists have been working tirelessly to try recreate the DNA sequence for the Woolly mammoth. The driving force behind their efforts is the hope that they could bring back the long-lost creature from extinction using the embryo and genetic closeness of one of its’ closest living relatives, the Asian elephant.
Woolly mammoth, which disappeared over 4,500 years ago, were some of the biggest animals roaming the Earth at the time, and were used to sub-zero temperatures. It is believed that a mixture of climate change and human hunting eventually drove the species to extinction, but several of the mammoths have been found over the years, relatively intact, preserved within the ice. These specimen gave researchers the opportunity to extract some DNA, which they have been manipulating in laboratories in order to combine it with the DNA of the Asian elephant to produce a viable hybrid.
The scientists at Harvard have been using the Cripr-Cas9 gene editing system to splice the genes together, and they believe they are within two years of being able to “de-extinct” the species. Whilst many are in favor of the project, seeing it as an opportunity to start reviving species thought to have been lost forever, others aren’t, saying they’d rather see scientists try to conserve current species that are on the cusp of extinction themselves.
However, several observers, such as Dr Beth Shapiro, believe that the work being done by the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival Team could end up being a huge benefit to conservationists:
“The creature will never be 100% mammoth, but Elephants are an endangered species, and what if you could swap out a few genes for mammoth genes, not to bring the mammoth back but to allow them to live in colder climates?”
Although gene editing is still a scientific grey area, the potential advances in genetics, biotech, science and conservation are huge. The Harvard team’s success could help open the door for genetically-engineered and “upgraded” species, giving them traits they did not previously have that could help them survive, but the question remains, is it the right thing to do?