Revival of the woolly mammoth
The existence of frozen soft tissue remains and DNA of woolly mammoths has led to the idea that the species could be recreated by scientific means. Several methods have been proposed to achieve this.
One proposed scientific use of this preserved genetic material, is to recreate living mammoths. This has long been discussed theoretically but has only recently become the subject of formal effort due to advances in molecular biology techniques and cloning of mammals. Cloning of mammals has improved in the last two decades, but no viable mammoth tissue or its intact genome has been found to attempt cloning.
According to one research team, a mammoth cannot be recreated, but they will try to eventually grow in an "artificial womb" a hybrid elephant with some woolly mammoth traits. Comparative genomics shows that the mammoth genome matches 99% of the elephant genome, so some researchers aim to engineer an elephant with some mammoth genes that code for the external appearance and traits of a mammoth. The outcome would be an elephant-mammoth hybrid with no more than 1% mammoth genes. Separate projects are working on gradually adding mammoth genes to elephant cells in vitro.
Cloning would involve removal of the DNA-containing nucleus of the egg cell of a female elephant, and replacement with a nucleus from woolly mammoth tissue, a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. For example, Akira Iritani, at the Kyoto University in Japan, reportedly planned to do this. The cell would then be stimulated into dividing, and implanted in a female elephant. The resulting calf would have the genes of the woolly mammoth. However, nobody has yet found a viable mammoth cell, and most scientists doubt that any living cell could have survived freezing in the tundra. Because of their conditions of preservation, the DNA of frozen mammoths has deteriorated significantly.
A second method involves artificially inseminating an elephant egg cell with sperm cells from a frozen woolly mammoth carcass. The resulting offspring would be an elephant–mammoth hybrid, and the process would have to be repeated so more hybrids could be used in breeding. After several generations of cross-breeding these hybrids, an almost pure woolly mammoth would be produced. Whether the hybrid embryo would be carried through the two-year gestation, is unknown; in one case, an Asian elephant and an African elephant produced a live calf named Motty, but it died of defects at less than two weeks old. The fact that sperm cells of modern mammals are viable for 15 years at most after deep-freezing makes this method unfeasible.
In April 2015, Swedish scientists published the complete genome (nuclear DNA sequence) of the woolly mammoth. Several projects are working on gradually replacing the genes in elephant cells with mammoth genes. One such project is that of Harvard University geneticist George M. Church, who is funded by the Long Now Foundation, is attempting to create a mammoth–elephant hybrid using DNA from frozen mammoth carcasses. According to the researchers, a mammoth cannot be recreated, but they will try to eventually grow a hybrid elephant with some woolly mammoth traits in an "artificial womb". The Harvard University team is attempting to study the animals' characteristics in vitro by replacing or editing some specific mammoth genes into Asian elephant skin cells called fibroblasts that have the potential to become embryonic stem cells. By March 2015 and using the new CRISPR DNA editing technique, Church's team had some woolly mammoth genes edited into the genome of an Asian elephant; focusing on cold-resistance initially, the target genes are for the external ear size, subcutaneous fat, hemoglobin, and hair attributes. By February 2017, Church's team had made 45 substitutions to the elephant genome. So far his work focuses solely on single cells.
The Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University is also researching the modification of African elephant DNA to create an elephant–mammoth hybrid. If a viable hybrid embryo is obtained by gene editing procedures, implanting it into a female Asian elephant housed in a zoo may be possible, but with the current knowledge and technology, whether the hybrid embryo would be carried through the two-year gestation is unknown.
If any method is ever successful, a suggestion has been made to introduce the hybrids to a wildlife reserve in Siberia called the Pleistocene Park, but some biologists question the ethics of such recreation attempts. In addition to the technical problems, not much habitat is left that would be suitable for elephant-mammoth hybrids. Because both species are [were] social and gregarious, creating a few specimens would not be ideal. The time and resources required would be enormous, and the scientific benefits would be unclear, suggesting these resources should instead be used to preserve extant elephant species which are endangered. The ethics of using elephants as surrogate mothers in hybridisation attempts has also been questioned, as most embryos would not survive, and knowing the exact needs of a hybrid elephant–mammoth calf would be impossible.
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