THE DE-EXTINCTION OF WOOLLY MAMMOTHS!
Do you remember the first time you saw the great Steven Spielberg movie, JURASSIC PARK? It was an amazing experience. Stan Winston’s animatronic creatures and the world’s first CGI photo-realistic dinosaurs were awe-inspiring. And then there was the story! Michael Crichton’s idea of using dino-DNA preserved in amber to clone dinosaurs was an innovative, seemingly ingenious proposal. It stirred our sense-of-wonder: could it be scientifically possible to bring dinosaurs back to life?
Sadly, the answer, currently, appears to be ‘no.’ Finding usable dinosaur DNA, even inside an amber-preserved insect, is not a realistic option. The reason is simple: DNA organically breaks down over just a few thousand years. And since the last of the dinosaurs died out hundreds of millions of years ago, too much time has passed. All dinosaur DNA has degraded into basic chemical compounds. So right now, it looks like we’ll never be able to clone a T-Rex and bring it back to life.
But what about the woolly mammoth?
Unlike the dinosaurs, woolly mammoths went extinct a mere four thousand years ago. That’s the equivalent of “yesterday” in geologic time. Frozen mammoth carcasses have even been found in the Siberian tundra where the cold partially preserved their internal organs and, even more importantly, their DNA. Today, the idea of “de-extincting” mammoths becomes a realistic goal due to recent radical advancements in gene-splicing technology.
With the goal of creating a new elephant-mammoth hybrid, US scientists are splicing mammoth DNA into the elephant genome. Since 2015, they’ve increased the number of DNA edits from 15 to 45, each edit adding specific characteristics of the woolly mammoth to the modern elephant’s anatomy, such as an abundance of shaggy fur, small ears, sub-cutaneous fat, and cold-adapted blood.
The researchers goal is not to impregnate a female elephant with a hybrid-embryo, but rather to grow the hybrid-embryo in an artificial womb — outside of an elephant’s body — in a laboratory environment. They call this procedure “embryogenesis.” Researchers hope to create a hybrid mammoth-elephant embryo in the next two years, though the creation of a viable living elephant-mammoth hybrid won’t happen until much further in the future.
Still, the goal is worth pursuing. The techniques used to resurrect the mammoths could be used to help replenish the populations of today’s endangered species, such as the Asian elephant, ensuring their survival as the world’s climate continues its transformation. Will a new elephant-mammoth hybrid walk the earth again one day? I truly believe the answer is ‘yes.’ And you will, with luck, be alive to see it!
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