Progress Report: Private Company Seeks to Genetically Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth

Joel Eisenberg

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Woolly MammothLeonello Calvetti/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Author’s Note

This article is free of opinion and bias, and is based solely on science and accredited media reports. No science or morality-based argument is offered herein on the part of the author. All listed theories and facts within this article are fully-attributed to several scientists and media outlets including geneticist George Church, The New York Times, Joseph Frederickson (vertebrate paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wisconsin), NPR, Scott Neuman, ReviveRestore.org, The Wire, TheConversation.com, and Corey A. Salsberg.

Introduction

Word of a recent effort by geneticist George Church to return the extinct Woolly Mammoth to Siberia was widely reported in September, 2021 to a largely skeptical scientific community.

See here for New York Times article, "A New Company With a Wild Mission: Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth." From the article: With $15 million in private funding, Colossal aims to bring thousands of woolly mammoths back to Siberia. Some scientists are deeply skeptical that will happen.

One of the chief critics behind this effort, Joseph Frederickson, a vertebrate paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wisconsin, says he was inspired as a child by the original “Jurassic Park” film. But he believes the more important goal should be preventing rather than reversing extinction. See here for Scott Neuman's NPR piece: "Scientists Say They Could Bring Back Woolly Mammoths. But Maybe They Shouldn't."

From the article: "If you can create a mammoth or at least an elephant that looks like a good copy of a mammoth that could survive in Siberia, you could do quite a bit for the white rhino or the giant panda.” Especially for animals that have "dwindling genetic diversity," Frederickson says, adding older genes from the fossil record or entirely new genes could increase the health of those populations.

ReviveRestore.org further explores the reasons behind the effort. See here for “Why Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?” which explains: Woolly mammoths, like elephants in Africa today, were the engineers of grasslands, keeping trees from growing onto the plains and dispersing large amounts of nutrients over immense distances via their dung.

Further, the article delves into the Woolly mammoths’ role in climate change: The tundra ecosystem that arose in the absence of these large grazing species is now affected by and contributing to human-driven climate change. Without large animals to compact and scrape away thick insulating layers of winter snow, extreme winter cold does not penetrate the soil. That fact, coupled with significantly warmer summers, accelerates the melting of the permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases that have been trapped for millennia.  From a global carbon perspective, the carbon release from melting of the world’s permafrost is equivalent to burning all the world’s forests 2 ½ times.

In the meantime, religious and moral debates on the matter of ‘man playing God’ have returned to common conversation as points of debate. A cursory look online illustrates the idea of returning Woolly mammoths has, in fact, been discussed for decades. See Stanford Technology Law Review’s 30-page dissertation on moral and religious implications of the matter, titled “Resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth: Science, Law, Ethics, Politics, and Religion,” by Corey A. Salsberg, here.

Said dissertation was published in 2000.

Yet another side of the moral debate is also prevalent. From The Conversation.com's piece on the matter, entitled "Bringing Woolly Mammoths Back From Extinction Might Not Be Such a Bad Idea — Ethicists Explain": Mammoth-like creatures could help restore this ecosystem by trampling shrubs, knocking over trees, and fertilizing grasses with their feces. Theoretically, this could help reduce climate change. If the current Siberian permafrost melts, it will release potent greenhouse gases. See here.

The ethics of bringing back a long-extinct species will likely continue to be rigorously argued, yet there remains substantive work to be done before the effort is even realized.

Progress Report

The return of Woolly mammoths is not imminent. See “The Problem With the Idea To Bring Back Woolly Mammoths” by Vasudevan Mukunth, science editor for The Wire, as posted on Science.TheWire.in. As reported in finer detail: Church plans to splice mammoth genes with those of an Asian elephant to create a hybrid called a ‘mammophant’. Among other things, Colossal hopes the mammoths will eliminate forests and wetlands, because they don’t absorb enough carbon to slow climate change.

Most scientists included in the linked articles above agree with Mukunth’s take. He also states, among other factors that tend to discount Church’s effort while referencing Scott Neuman's NPR report as linked earlier: To be sure, what Church’s company, Colossal, is proposing would actually be a hybrid created using a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 to splice bits of DNA recovered from frozen mammoth specimens into that of an Asian elephant, the mammoth’s closest living relative. The resulting animal — known as a “mammophant” — would look, and presumably behave, much like a woolly mammoth. The article then discusses the potential of Church’s project to “help reverse climate change” (no evidence), “help endangered species” (may be more worthwhile to keep existing elephants from going extinct), “upset existing ecosystems” (likely, since the tundra has changed to adapt to a world without mammoths) and, finally, its potential to fail.

The technology may come. But it is not fully there. See here for ReviveRestore.org formal company-approved on progress, which also includes immediate next steps, and future steps.

Conclusion

As some in the general public are raising their voices regarding morality issues, geneticists continue to explore the limits of science and technology as it regards experimenting with genetic revival.

In time, the fiction of author Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”) may well come to pass. For now, the goal remains.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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