For the first time in over 3,000 years, the functional components of wooly mammoth DNA have been brought to life (albeit in a petri dish). The achievement represents an important step towards potential efforts to bring the extinct species back.
The experiment was performed by accomplished geneticist George Church of Harvard University. To do it, his team analyzed the DNA extracted from the well-preserved remains of mammoths found on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, where the species is thought to have made its last stand some 3,300 years ago. The Harvard researchers weren't able to reconstruct the DNA in its entirety, but they were able to recreate, or synthesize, a functional version of it in the lab. Mammoths are closely related to Asian elephants, so a complete cell did not have to be created from scratch.
"We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially hemoglobin," Church told The Sunday Times. "We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so."
To insert the reconstituted mammoth DNA into the elephant genome, Church's team used a gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. It's the same cut-and-paste tool that's allowing scientists to create transgenic organisms, i.e. animals who cells have been implanted with the DNA from another species.
But this particular case is the first time the technique has been performed with the DNA of an extinct species.
Eventually, these viable transgenic cells could make the cloning of a wooly mammoth possible. But some scientists question the ethics. As biologist Alex Greenwood from the Institute of Virology and Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research told The Telegraph:
We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants. Why bring back another elephant from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around? What is the message? We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we'll just clone things back? Money would be better spent focusing on conserving what we do have than spending it on an animal that has been extinct for thousands of years.
Well, we can probably do both. The real challenge is to make sure the elephant mother and baby mammoth are safe and healthy, while also ensuring the de-extincted calf has a life worth living. But given that this creature would be the subject of considerable scientific inquiry, that's bloody unlikely.
Image: Michil Yakovlev, North-Eastern Federal University.