As I wrote this morning in the Hili dialogue, and as Carl Zimmer describes in the NYT article below (click on screenshot), a team of scientists and entrepreneurs has formed a company called Colossal that aims to “bring back the woolly mammoth.” They raised fifteen million dollars in funding to do this job (cf. P. T. Barnum). The motivating force for this endeavor is well-known Harvard geneticist George Church, who for years has said that a “resurrected” woolly mammoth, constructed using DNA sequence from mammoths frozen in the permafrost, was right around the corner.
Well, the corner hasn’t been turned, and, if I don’t miss my guess, it won’t be. This project is fraught with so many problems that the likelihood of producing a woolly mammoth is close to zero.
In fact it IS zero, because they’re not going to resurrect that extinct creature. What they are doing is making a genetically modified Asian elephant by inserting into its genome a maximum of sixty mammoth genes that they think differentiate the modern species from the extinct one: genes that involve hairiness, cold tolerance, amount of fat, and so on. What they’d get would be a genetic chimera, an almost entirely Asian elephant but one that is hairier, chunkier, and more tolerant of cold. That is NOT a woolly mammoth, nor would it behave like a woolly mammoth, for they’re not inserting behavior genes.
I heard people are trying to bring mammoths back, and I’ve thought it sounded pretty cool. Not sure how they raised $15M on the promise of a uterine replicator! Is it just me, or does one not need to be a scientist to see through that?
I think more recently I’ve started to understand more viscerally the ethics issues involved with genetically modifying animals. For instance, I love those adorable little French bulldogs, but there is no chance in h*ll I would ever support an industry that brings bundles of health issues like those into the world on purpose. I’d have similar concerns about these elephants, too.
I question whether it is ethical to introduce something like this into an endangered species. It would be far better to work to keep elephants from becoming extinct, by preserving their habitat and keeping them from being hunted/exploited. Far better and more ethical to save the elephants than to make fake wooly mammoths.