Will Science Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?

Evan McKenna, contributor

Published to OdysseyOnline 2015

The idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth is nothing new to the world of genetics. And now, in 2015, paleogeneticists have recovered enough woolly mammoth cells out of the frozen lands of Siberia to recreate the pre-historic beast.

The woolly mammoth is nearly identical to the Asian elephant in regard to genetic code.  Because of this, scientists theorized that they could use the Asian elephant to bring back its extinct cousin. As they continued to gather fragments of mammoth DNA, paleogeneticists slowly puzzled together the genome of the species, showing them the genetic similarities and differences between the mammoth and the elephant.

Researchers knew that if the unique genetic information encoded within the Asian elephant cell could be replaced with the unique genetic information of the woolly mammoth, the newly modified asian elephant cell would hold the exact sequence of a woolly mammoth. The theory then became a reality in March of 2015 when Harvard professor of genetics George Church successfully spliced the unique fragments of woolly mammoth DNA into the modified DNA of an Asian elephant.

When this woolly mammoth cell was created, scientists knew they were no longer experimenting with DNA in laboratory. They were playing God.

To put the procedure into practice, scientists would have to scrupulously complete a particular set of steps. First, they would have to inject the unique DNA of the mammoth cells into the modified DNA of an Asian elephant embryo. Next, they would have to both monitor and nurse the mother elephant through her life-threatening pregnancy, making sure all life-permitting conditions remain constant. If she survives to the stage of conception, the experiment would result in a woolly mammoth offspring containing all the distinct qualities that it did 10,000 years ago: the extra hair, extra fat, different tusks, and bigger ears.

But this would only be the beginning of the struggle. A suitable, artificial climate would need to be created immediately, with medical improvisation being the only method of remedy in the case of an emergency.

The possibility of mammoths roaming the earth once again fascinated researchers–not to mention the rest of the world. But after digesting the excitement and restraining the impulse to act suddenly, the ethics of the mammoth revival were brought into question.

The problem is that this procedure, while possible, is estimated to fail. A failure would result in severe consequences, specifically slow deaths of impregnated Asian elephants.

“It seems to me that trying this out might lead to suffering for female elephants, and that would not be ethically justifiable” Paleogeneticist Love Dalen, associate professor at Swedish Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study told the BBC.

In regards to the offspring, scientists are skeptical whether it will survive  either. When the Pyrenean ibex goat was brought back to life in 2003 using the same genetic splicing process, it died seven minutes after birth. And until attempted, the survivability of the woolly mammoth offspring cannot be predicted.

Prioritizing between the living species and the dead was also brought into the ethical discussion, becoming another reason behind science’s reluctance to recreate the animal.

“We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants. Why bring back another elephantid from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around?” Professor Alex Greenwood, an ancient DNA expert, told The Telegraph. “What is the message? We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we’ll just clone things back?”

The ethical concern has gone unresolved and continues to be discussed in laboratories across the world. Where would the species live in this increasingly hot climate? Would the purpose merely be for our own selfish entertainment? Playing God is a game of ethics, and to many scientists, just because the woolly mammoth could be brought back to life doesn’t mean it should be.

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