It’s rare that we here at We Hunted the Mammoth get to write about actual mammoths, in part because they’ve been extinct for 4000 years.
But they may not be extinct much longer.
A team of wily genetic engineers at Harvard recently announced that it is only a couple of years away from recreating an actual mammoth using mammoth DNA someone dug out of a block of ice or wherever it is one goes to get mammoth DNA these days.
Well, ok, they’re not saying they can create an actual living mammoth with the trunk and the fur and the big tusks and the crushing of puny humans with its mammoth feet and so on. They think they’re a couple of years away from creating an embryo of a sort of half-mammoth/half-elephant mashup.
I’ll let The Guardian explain:
[T]he scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”
The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.
Until now, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.
The scientists plan to grow the lil mammophant in a
cardboard box artificial womb rather than in an actual elephant because they don’t want to risk the life of a member of an endangered species.
All this is possible, the Guardian notes, due to some big advances in gene splicing technology.
“De-extincting” the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.
Church helped develop the most widely used technique, known as Crispr/Cas9, that has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012. Derived from a defence system bacteria use to fend off viruses, it allows the “cut and paste” manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.
So presumably at some point these scientists will be able to create a four-assed mammophant, a la South Park.
Church claims that his Dr. Moreauesque experiments could be good for elephants and help to fight global warming.
Church, a guest speaker at the meeting, said the mammoth project had two goals: securing an alternative future for the endangered Asian elephant and helping to combat global warming. Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
Yeah, I’m sure there are no other possible ways to poke holes in snow or knock down trees besides genetically engineering a hybrid species using the DNA of an extinct animal.
And Church is definitely not planning on breeding an army of genetically enhanced super-mammophants that he will use to take over the world.
Did I mention that he thinks that within a decade we’ll be able to reverse aging with genetic engineering?
In other words, if the world survives the Trump administration, we may all, within a few short years, be able to live forever, riding through the tundra on our mammophants, knocking down trees and hunting down any remaining ethicists who say that hey maybe we shouldn’t create new combo animals in the lab just because we can.
I, for one, welcome our new genetically engineered mammophant overlords.