Could Woolly Mammoth Genes Fight Climate Change?


Woolly mammoths went extinct more than 4,000 years ago. However, a new paper suggests that Woolly mammoth genes could help fight one of the most dangerous problems that humanity is dealing with at the moment – climate change.

Scientists hope to use permafrost-preserved DNA that belongs to woolly mammoths to bring them back to life, although according to the report in Live Science, scientists don’t want to recreate a “Jurassic Park” scenario.” Instead of reviving entire mammoths they are hoping to revive woolly mammoth genes and combine them with the genes of today’s Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) which would help increase the tolerance of these animals to cold, according to George Church, a Harvard and MIT geneticist who is joining the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team.

“I don’t even think it’s desirable” to revive a complete mammoth, Church told Live Science on May 11, at the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala. According to him, a few of the ancient genes that they can acquire would be more helpful in making better survival chances of threatened elephants, which could be introduced to the northern parts of the planet.

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Back in the day, when mammoths roamed the northern part of the globe called the “mammoth steppe,” the ecosystem had a lot of grass. However, that changed when the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) disappeared, and the grass turned into shrubs and tundra, which is an ecosystem that the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team thinks is “contributing to human-driven climate change.”

“The elephants that lived in the past — and elephants possibly in the future — knocked down trees and allowed the cold air to hit the ground and keep the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect the sunlight in the summer,” Church said. “Those two [factors] combined could result in a huge cooling of the soil and a rich ecosystem.”

“Fluffy snow is like a down blanket keeping the warm summer soil away from the -40 degree winter winds,” Church said.  The trees will also absorb light and heat in the summer and will keep cold winds out in the winter, he added.

The elephants that live right now are incapable of tolerating the cold climate of the steppe. So, scientists want to recreate woolly mammoth genes with gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to add the ancient genes from mammoths into Asian elephant cells and create new embryos that would grow up to be elephant-mammoth hybrids.

“It could just be 44 genes [that] might be sufficient to make them adapted again to the cold,” Church said.

However, this is quite challenging to achieve because the team is worried about ethical concerns that come with implanting the embryos into elephants, which they hope to be able to grow in the lab. So far, according to Church, they have managed to insert mammoth genes into elephant cells in the lab. Those cells work as more hair growth or fat production, according to an earlier Live Science Report.