In January, Digital Journal
delved into de-extinction and the possibility of bringing back ecologically beneficial animal and plant species. A revolutionary gene-editing technology was discussed as possibly one way the resurrection of a species might be accomplished.
Dr. Church, who New Scientist
is calling a "maverick geneticist" is heading up a de-extinction team that claims they are about two years away from creating a hybrid mammoth embryo with the goal of developing the embryo into a fetus in the laboratory.
Yes, it is a complicated and long-drawn-out process, and Church admits in reality, what they would end up with is an elephant embryo carrying a handful of mammoth genetic traits. “We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.” Church was speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week.
CRISPR gene editing
Church explains that the creature, dubbed a “mammophant,” would be "partly elephant" but have features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. This is where CRISPR gene editing technology comes into play. CRISPR
uses a modified bacterial protein and an RNA to guide it to a particular DNA sequence.
With this feat of genetic engineering, the team has control of the genes of the mammoth species, allowing them to remove or splice specific genes to a strand of DNA. So far, the team has edited 15 key genes necessary for resurrecting the creature but still have about 30 more essential genes to go before they have what is needed in order to complete the splicing onto an Asian elephant DNA.
Why resurrect the mammoth?
As we discussed in a previous story, de-extinction should not mean bringing animals back to fill our zoos. Instead, they should be brought back to create a genetically diverse and viable population that would complement and maintain the health of the environment they once lived in.
This is what Dr. Church wants to do with his cloned mammophant. He believes that re-introducing these creatures into parts of the tundra will help in mitigating climate change, reports NBC News
"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 and slow the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere."
But here's the interesting and somewhat surprising part of Dr. Church's project - He has no intention of using living elephants as surrogate mothers. Church told New Scientist
that instead, he hopes to develop the fetuses in the lab with no need of a living surrogate, but the technology hasn't been developed yet.
But does this mean resurrecting a mammoth is doomed and nothing more than wishful thinking? Maybe yes, and maybe no.