I read the news today, oh boy:
Ten thousand years after woolly mammoths vanished from the face of the Earth, scientists are embarking on an ambitious project to bring the beasts back to the Arctic tundra.
Did you say MAMMOTHS? Like the ones in the very name of this site? Tell me more, The Guardian.
The prospect of recreating mammoths and returning them to the wild has been discussed – seriously at times – for more than a decade, but on Monday researchers announced fresh funding they believe could make their dream a reality.
The boost comes in the form of $15m (£11m) raised by the bioscience and genetics company Colossal, co-founded by Ben Lamm, a tech and software entrepreneur, and George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has pioneered new approaches to gene editing.
If this all seems a bit familiar, it’s because Church was talking about this exact same project back in 2017, and of course I wrote about it then. The difference is that they now have $15 million to finance Church’s weird science.
As Church explained back in 2017, he isn’t planning on bringing back the same mammoth that our ancestors hunted so many years ago. Instead, he’s going to work a bit of elephant into the mix.
The scientists have set their initial sights on creating an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA.
Is this starting to sound a little Island of Dr. Moreau to you?
I mean, while you’re at it why not give them two trunks? Or opposable thumbs? Or forget the whole mammoth thing and bring back an assortment of dinosaurs and put them in a theme park? Nothing could go wrong with that plan.
But they aren’t talking theme parks just yet.
“Our goal is to make a cold-resistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40C, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees,” Church told the Guardian.
Why do you want to knock down trees that badly, dude? There are easier ways to do that, you know.
The project is framed as an effort to help conserve Asian elephants by equipping them with traits that allow them to thrive in vast stretches of the Arctic known as the mammoth steppe. But the scientists also believe introducing herds of elephant-mammoth hybrids to the Arctic tundra may help restore the degraded habitat and combat some of the impacts of the climate crisis. For example, by knocking down trees, the beasts might help to restore the former Arctic grasslands.
Huh. I thought trees were good, environmentally speaking. Apparently the grasslands would help to cool the area.
So maybe they could do the environment some good, at least in theory. The trouble is, once you release these hypothetical mammoth-elephant hybrids into the wild, you don’t have control over what they do.
I mean, just to raise one possible issue: since mammoth-elephant hybrids don’t live anywhere on earth right now, wherever the scientists decide to put them they’ll be an invasive species. What if they wander out of the arctic and start taking over every chilly spot on planet earth? What if they accidentally sit on some polar bears?
Frankly, the ecological justification seems a bit tacked on, less a reason for the research than an excuse cooked up by scientists who are jonesing to create a little mammoth of their own.
It turns out I’m not the only skeptic. Some people who actually know what they’re talking about think it’s a bad idea too.
“My personal thinking is that the justifications given – the idea that you could geoengineer the Arctic environment using a heard of mammoths – isn’t plausible,” said Dr Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum.
She’s not the only scientist raising objections.
Gareth Phoenix, a professor of plant and global change ecology at the University of Sheffield, said: “While we do need a multitude of different approaches to stop climate change, we also need to initiate solutions responsibly to avoid unintended damaging consequences.”
That’s what I said!
Just keep in mind what happened when some mad scientists created a race of supersized murder-bunnies.
You’ve been warned!
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