The woolly mammoth went extinct at the end of the last ice age thousands of years ago, a victim of warming weather and hunting by prehistoric humans. But the mammoth — or rather something very much like it — may be resurrected if Dr. George Church has his way.
The Harvard geneticist started with a close relative, the Asian elephant, and is using a genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR in an effort to create a mammoth-like elephant capable of thriving in cold regions.
It’s not a vanity project. Church thinks reintroducing the mammoth-like animal into parts the tundra could help curb climate change.
“By allowing cold resistant elephants or mammoths to repopulate the tundra,” Church says, “they will punch down the snow in wintertime allowing cold air to come in, and in the summertime they’ll knock down trees, which are very absorbent.” This will help the dead grass start to grow, he explains, and slow the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.
“When you simulate this with a real ecosystem in Siberia,” he says, “the temperature drop is 20 degrees, which is really big deal in terms of delaying the release of carbon by melting.”
So far, Church’s team has edited 15 key genes that will be needed to resurrect the creature, and he says they’re well on the way to editing another 30-odd of the essential genes. Sounds like a mammoth effort.