Get ready for some scientific ethics. Scientists from the company, Colossal, want to engineer a modern-day woolly mammoth. George Church is a geneticist from Harvard University. He has co-founded Colossal, and they have ambitious goals. While the beasts have been extinct for thousands of years, genetic science could bring them back.
Now, you may be wondering to yourself, “didn’t they go extinct for a reason?” While the species thrived in the ice ages of roughly 11,000 years ago, the present day is noticeably missing the ice age part. However, part of this project is to help turn landscapes of “mossy tundra,” into grassy steppes. This would allow more diverse vegetation to develop in these biomes.
According to National Geographic, “Some scientists hypothesize that at large scales, this reversal could reduce further climate change by slowing the thaw of Arctic permafrost.” Quite an interesting hypothesis.
Church wants to make one thing clear, this is not bringing an extinct species back, just the genes. Since the woolly mammoth is indeed extinct, it will never come back in a pure sense. It has to have its genes mixed with modern elephants. So, it will be a hybrid species of elephant that will be made for cold weather conditions.
While this research and project are certainly interesting and exciting, the science behind it is not new. Since 2000, there has been incredible work in the field. With that said, these mammoths won’t be here tomorrow. Or next year. In fact, the first hybrid calf is expected to come within six years at the earliest. After that, getting an actual herd that reproduces naturally could take multiple decades.
Woolly Mammoth Hybrids a Long Project
While the possibility of a self-sustaining herd is decades in the future, there have also been years of work just to get to this point. George Church spoke with the New York Times back in 2008 about sequencing the genome of the hairy beast. Back then, this was more of an intellectual challenge versus an actual project. However, in the years since, things have progressed quickly.
This isn’t a vanity project to play God and resurrect a long-gone species. And it isn’t about nostalgia, according to Church’s colleague, Ryan Phelan.
“De-extinction and the idea of what we call genetic rescue is really a story about hope and being able to repair some of the damage that humans have caused over the centuries,” Phelan explained, “It’s not nostalgia – it’s really about increasing biodiversity.”
Long-term projects like this to target the environment could be coming in the future, not just with the woolly mammoth, either. This surely isn’t the only species that scientists want to bring back in an effort to improve environments and ecosystems. There are also endangered species that can be helped with similar efforts.