A team of researchers say they are on the verge of bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction.
Working out of Harvard University under the maverick geneticist George Church, the scientists are confident they will soon be able to create mammoth embryos in the laboratory. The next step will be to grow them in artificial wombs for the 22 months it will likely take for the fetuses to develop, at which stage they will then have successfully cloned and brought back the megaherbivore.
The team are set to publish papers in the next few weeks on how they aim to achieve this in more detail, but the basics are fairly well known. We have already sequenced the entire genome of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct on the mainland around 10,000 years ago but persisted on a small island in the Bering Strait until just 4,000 years ago. Due to this, scientists have been able to compare it with its closest living relative, the Asian elephant.
This allowed them to pinpoint which major genetic changes occurred in the mammoths that enabled them to survive the freezing conditions of the north. The team have been able to take these genes – such as those that give them long hair, small ears, thick layers of subcutaneous fat, and anti-freeze blood – and insert them back into the Asian elephant genome to create a hybrid species.
Now, this wouldn’t be a “true” woolly mammoth but instead a “proxy” species, showing all the traits and ecological functions that the original animals had. “The intent is not to make perfect copies of extinct Woolly Mammoths, but to focus on the mammoth adaptations needed for Asian elephants to thrive in the cold climate of the Arctic,” they write.