Wooly Mammoth De-extinction Scientist Reveals Plan To Create 'Arctic Elephant'

A scientist who plans to bring the wooly mammoth—or at least its genes—back from extinction has revealed details about creating an "Arctic elephant."

Mammoths mostly died out around 10,000 years ago. As sea levels rose, the remaining population got stranded on Wrangel Island and eventually disappeared 4,000 years ago.

Well-preserved samples of these extinct giants have since been found in the Arctic permafrost, allowing researchers to get a glimpse of their DNA sequence.

With these samples, scientists at the Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston, Massachusetts, are working on plans to combine that DNA with samples taken from Asian Elephants—the mammoth's closest living relatives—to bring these genes back from the dead.

Speaking with HMS News on November 12, 2021, HMS geneticist George Church said that plans to combine cold-resistant genes of mammoths with modern Asian elephants would not necessarily create live mammoths immediately, but could see their genes put to good use.

"We're trying to de-extinct genes," he told HMNews. "The field has actually already done this with two genes that confer cold-resistant properties to organisms. The idea is to safely introduce these and other genes into present-day elephants so the elephants can comfortably live in and restore Arctic environments."

baby mammoth
A well-preserved baby mammoth found in Russia in 2007. Getty Images

To that end, Church co-founded a company called Colossal that aims to patent the gene-editing technology to bring mammoth DNA back from the dead.

One of the primary factors encouraging researchers to create mammoth-elephant hybrids that can survive in colder temperatures has to do with climate change.

Speaking to The Times, Church said this new animal should not be called a wooly mammoth: "An Arctic elephant is a better term," he said.

Church told HMNews these hybrids could also help extant elephants living today. "All elephant species are endangered," he said. "We're trying to give them new land in the Arctic that's far away from humans, who are the major culprits causing extinction."

As climate change accelerates and heats the atmosphere, it is warming the Arctic faster than any other region on the planet. In the coming decades this is expected to have potentially disastrous effects.

Melting permafrost in the Yukon
Melting permafrost seen in the Yukon. Scientists believe mammoth-elephant hybrids could help avert melting permafrost by trampling foliage in the Arctic. MARK RALSTON / Contributor/Getty Images

Among them are the melting of Arctic permafrost and the release of the vast quantities of carbon and methane locked away underneath its frozen shell, further exacerbating climate change and global heating.

By re-wilding certain regions—including the Arctic—with elephant-mammoth hybrids, scientists believe they could help avert that particular disaster.

The animals could do so by helping to trample and suppress the rapid tree growth now seen in the Arctic that makes it harder for frost to penetrate the ground and freeze it. If they were successful, the permafrost could be saved, and the carbon it stores would remain locked away.

"The two-for-one is that not only would the elephants get a new homeland, but their homeland is in desperate need of environmental restoration, and they can help," Church told HMNews. "Moving genetically adapted elephants to the Arctic offers an opportunity to sequester, or remove from the atmosphere, significant amounts of carbon and to prevent more carbon from escaping."

Playing God?

Editing DNA and genes however raises ethical questions such as whether humans have a right to edit the DNA of other animals. What are the ethical implications of such work?

"Projects involving genetic manipulation often raise concerns about 'playing God' or meddling with nature," Julian Koplin, Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, told Newsweek. "In this case, though, the aim is to re-introduce mammoths into ecosystems in which they used to exist—which to my mind resembles existing rewilding projects more closely than Frankensteinian meddling with nature."

He said that the primary ethical questions raised by the work would be about resource allocation, with the results far from clear.

Christopher Gyngell, also a Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and University of Melbourne, said that the results of such work are far from guaranteed because we don't know how these hybrid animals would behave.

"There is reason to be sceptical that introducing some mammoth genes into Asian elephants will result in them adopting the behaviour of mammoths from thousands of years ago," he told Newsweek. "Elephants, as well as humans, learn behaviours from their parents and elders ... It's not clear that elephant-mammal hybrids will act like mammoths with no established elders living in the ecosystem."

'A long shot worth taking'

Concerns over playing God or how effective mammoth-elephant hybrids could however be eclipsed by even bigger concerns raised by climate change.

Both biomedical ethics experts said that when it comes to a problem as serious and urgent as the climate crisis, such a scheme to help avert the disaster of a melted permafrost might be worth it.

Stock 3D image of a mammoth
Stock image of an artist's 3D render of a mammoth. Scientists are working to combine mammoth DNA with that of Asian elephants in the hopes of re-wilding regions of the Earth with hybrid animals to combat climate change. Daniel Eskridge/Getty Images

"It's a great aim," Gyngell said. "Although this project uses novel technologies, it pursues similar goals to other environmental projects ... furthermore, the melting of the Siberian permafrost is a serious global problem. Ambitious projects like this may be justified when trying to solve potentially catastrophic issues."

Koplin also expressed enthusiasm for the mammoth undertaking. "I'm personally excited by the project," he said. "This is partly because—like everyone—I love woolly mammoths, and partly because of what de-extinction technologies could do for our ability to repair some of the damage humans have inflicted on biodiversity.

"Since the consequences of climate change are potentially catastrophic, I think it's worth taking seriously any strategies that could help, including those that have a low chance of success or might seem far-fetched.

"If the stakes are high enough, even a long shot is worth taking."