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Using recovered DNA to “genetically resurrect” an extinct species — the central idea behind the Jurassic Park films — may be moving closer to reality with the creation this week of a new company that aims to bring back woolly mammoths thousands of years after the last of the giants disappeared from the Arctic tundra.
Flush with a $15 million infusion of funding, Harvard University genetics professor George Church, known for his pioneering work in genome sequencing and gene splicing, hopes the company, in the bold words of its news release, can usher in an era when mammoths “walk the Arctic tundra again.” He and other researchers also hope that a revived species can play a role in combating climate change.
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.
Some say reintroduced mammoths could help reverse climate change
Church and others believe that resurrecting the mammoth would plug a hole in the ecosystem left by their decline about 10,000 years ago (although some isolated populations are thought to have remained in Siberia until about 1,700 B.C.). The largest mammoths stood more than 10 feet at the shoulder and are believed to have weighed as much as 15 tons.
Mammoths once scraped away layers of snow so that cold air could reach the soil and maintain the permafrost. After they disappeared, the accumulated snow, with its insulating properties, meant the permafrost began to warm, releasing greenhouse gases, Church and others contend. They argue that returning mammoths — or at least a hybrid that fills the same ecological niche — to the Arctic could reverse that trend.
Love Dalén, a professor in evolutionary genetics at the Stockholm-based Centre for Palaeogenetics, is skeptical of that claim.
“I personally do not think that this will have any impact, any measurable impact, on the rate of climate change in the future, even if it were to succeed,” he tells NPR. “There is virtually no evidence in support of the hypothesis that trampling of a very large number of mammoths would have any impact on climate change and it could equally well, in my view, have a negative effect on temperatures.”
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The techniques might be better used to help endangered species
But even if the researchers at Colossal can bring back mammoths — and that is not certain — the obvious question is, should they?
“I can see some reasons to do the first steps where you are tinkering with cell lines and editing the genomes,” Dalén says. “I think there is a lot of technological development that can be done [and] we can learn a lot about how to edit genomes, and that could be really useful for endangered species today.”
Joseph Frederickson, a vertebrate paleontologist and…