Will Scientists Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth?

Model of a woolly mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Canada. (click for credit)

One of my former students sent me an article from The Telegraph, a news outlet in the UK. The headline reads:

Woolly mammoth will be back from extinction within two years, say Harvard scientists

The article was written in February of 2017, so the student wanted to know if there would really be living woolly mammoths next year. The answer, of course, is absolutely not. This article is just another example of how many “science journalists” understand neither science nor journalism. Nevertheless, the actual scientific story is interesting, even though it isn’t nearly as sensational as what is indicated in The Telegraph‘s article, or articles found on other sites, such as here and here.

These articles are attempting to report on the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project, which is headed by Harvard professor Dr. George Church. As its website indicates, the goal is not to bring back the identical mammoth species again. Instead, its goal is to create some kind of elephant/mammoth hybrid that can live in colder climates. Why would it want to do that? For ecological engineering.

At some time in the past, woolly mammoth herds (and herds of other cold-adapted animals) roamed what are now the evergreen forests in the northern latitudes. This kept the growth of evergreens in check, making those areas more like grasslands. In addition, the mammoth herds would pack down and scrape away snow. Without this “land reshaping,” snow insulates the soil below, reducing the depth to which it freezes. As the deeper soil thaws, it releases greenhouse gases, and the worry is that those released greenhouse gases will accelerate global warming, aka “climate change.” Now please note that actual data indicate thawing soil will reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but most “climate change” alarmists aren’t interested in the data.

In the end, then, the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project hopes to populate the north with cold-adapted, elephant-like animals that will once again turn the northern evergreen forests into grasslands, packing down and scraping away the snow as they roam.

I see at least one big problem with this idea. We have already witnessed the devastating effects of introducing new animals to regions where they don’t exist. In my high-school biology course, I discuss the devastation that occurred when Europeans brought rabbits to Australia. It took a virus to get that problem under control, and it is still a long way from being solved. Because some people simply cannot learn from history, the cane toad was later introduced in Australia, and biologists are still trying to fix that mess. Does anyone really believe that introducing herds of elephant-like mammals in the north isn’t going to result in a similar fiasco?

Putting aside that problem, however, the research is interesting and is worth discussing a bit more. While woolly mammoths are not alive today, some have been so well-preserved that DNA has been taken from their remains. That DNA has been sequenced, and in 2015, a study compared that DNA to the DNA of Asian elephants, which are genetically very similar to woolly mammoths. The study identified 1,642 genes in woolly mammoth DNA that are different from the genes in Asian elephants. The Woolly Mammoth Revival Project is using gene-editing procedures to change some of those genes in Asian elephant DNA to match what is found in woolly mammoth DNA.

Has the project been successful? According to their website:

To date a number of genes have been successfully rewritten into Asian Elephant cell lines, generating increasingly mammoth-like cells with each precise edit. Mutations for mammoth hemoglobin, extra hair growth, fat production, down to nuanced climate adaptations such as slightly altered sodium ion channels in cell membranes have already been engineered into fibroblast cell lines.

If you don’t recognize the term, fibroblast cells are found in connective tissue. They produce proteins that are characteristic of such tissue. So far, then, the project has managed to produce individual cells in which some of the genes have been changed to what was found in mammoths. That, of course, is a far cry from making an actual animal, and it is farther still from “resurrecting” the woolly mammoth!

As the project’s website states, the team now has to convert those fibroblast cells into stem cells, and then coax those stem cells to produce various tissues, like blood, hair, and fat. Most likely, the tissues won’t act properly, because the new genes have to be regulated. A lot of gene regulation occurs in what evolutionists used to call “junk DNA,” and there is still much we don’t understand about that. With a lot of trial and error, however, it is possible that at some point, they will have a genome that can produce cold-adapted tissues properly.

Now comes the hard part. They have to coax one of those cells into thinking it is the result of a fertilization process, so that it will start to form an embryo. The coaxing itself isn’t a problem; we have seen that already in other mammal clones. The problem will be developing the embryo. Typically, a clone is made by allowing the cell to start the embryonic development process and then, when it reaches the correct stage, implanting it into a female of the same species. Obviously, that’s not possible in this case.

So what will the scientists do if they ever reach the point of being able to make an embryo? The obvious choice would be to implant the embryo into an Asian elephant. But there’s a problem with that. Asian elephants are an endangered species! Nurturing an embryo and giving birth is a dangerous task for any mammal, and if the experiments with mammal cloning are any indication, it will have to be done several times to get viable offspring. Is it really ethical to experiment on endangered animals like that?

That’s why I say this is the hard part. In the end, the project’s current plan is to build an artificial womb in which to allow the embryo to develop. There has been some progress made in artificial wombs, but they have only been used on lamb embryos that had already been in a real womb for at least 125 days. In addition, the lead researcher says that this technology is not intended to work in the early stages of embryonic development, which would be necessary for the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project.

To sum up, then, we will not be seeing woolly mammoths in 2019. In fact, we won’t even see elephant/mammoth hybrids in 2019. If this ambitious project ever succeeds, it will be many years, probably decades, from now.

6 Comments

  1. Daniel says:

    Jay, did you see this article on genetic meltdown? “Dying woolly mammoths were in ‘genetic meltdown’” https://www.nature.com/news/dying-woolly-mammoths-were-in-genetic-meltdown-1.21575. It seems to support John Sanford’s work https://amzn.to/2Nr9nqo.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I had seen that, Daniel. I don’t think it supports Sanford directly. In fact, evolutionists would predict the same effect from a dwindling population. The idea is that in order for natural selection to weed out the harmful mutations, there have to be a lot of individuals in the population. That way, there is a lot of competition, and the unfit die. As a result, only “fit” genomes get sent to the next generation. If the population dwindles, there isn’t as much competition, so less fit individuals end up surviving, transmitting their less-fit genomes to the next generation. That sends the population into a genetic spiral. This is why Dr. Graur says, “If ENCODE is right, then evolution is wrong.” He says that current human population isn’t anywhere near large enough for natural selection to weed out mutations on more than 80% of the genome.

      Dr. Sanford essentially says that natural selection isn’t strong enough to weed out slightly harmful mutations, so they build up in a population of any size. That buildup causes genetic decay. When it comes to viruses, at least, he seems to be correct.

  2. John D. says:

    Yikes… Makes me think of that sad mess of a botched gene swap from “The Fly”.

    Something tells me extinction might be a one way ticket. I imagine DNA as a sort of symphony in progress. The staff,bars, and musical notes in ink, but LOTS of pencil on top of that – describing what to play, what not to, what to speed up, play softer, add this note here, make this pause longer…etc. The living expression that is epigenetics!

    I’m in agreement with Denyse O’Leary over at the Discovery Institute who states –

    “There is an irony in the way the resurgence came about. A key science achievement of the 1990s was the mapping of the human genome. Those were the days when Nobelist Walter Gilbert, extolling the Human Genome Project, would hold up a data CD and inform his audience, “Here is a human being; it’s me!”

    But what if it isn’t? What if it is just a CD containing important information about Gilbert but by no means the whole story? What if the rest of the story is created in the continuous stream of life?”

  3. Jake says:

    The ecological engineering angle is interesting, but I can’t imagine that, even if their woolly-mammoth revival project is as successful as they hope, that they could produce enough woolly mammoths quickly enough to alter their global-warming timetables at all. I feel like that part is just an excuse for doing something ridiculously cool.

    But I didn’t realize we had gotten anywhere with artificial wombs. That is both fascinating and disconcerting.

  4. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    These scientists wouldn’t have to go to all this trouble if Thomas Stevens hadn’t killed the last Woolly Mammoth in Jack London’s short story “A Relic of the Pliocene” (http://wondersmith.com/scifi/relic.htm), but Stevens was more concerned with the death of his dog and her puppies than with global warming.

  5. Kaydi says:

    It is appalling what people will do to animals in the name of ‘science’ and their own financial gain, extremely unethical. Artificially insiminating animals under any circumstance is beastiality, why do people refuse to make this connection? It is done against the animal’s will and it doesn’t matter what the person’s intention was, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I would hate to be a scientist if it means giving up my ethics in pursuit of greater knowledge and supposedly for the greater good, how deceived they are.

    Don’t they realize that adding more animals especially of that size will also add a negative impact in regards to global warming. They will be lucky just to break even, each action will cancel the other one out. Plants would be much more useful than animals in the reduction of global warming, if it exists.

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