As many of you probably know, a team of geneticists at Harvard has been working to insert mammoth DNA into elephant fibroblasts with the goal of eventually producing a hybrid embryo. The ethical arguments to justify this project are to protect the endangered Asian elephant from extinction and to combat global warming. The hybrids could potentially keep tundra permafrost from melting and releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It would never bring back a fully genetic mammoth of course. The techniques in use are truly remarkable. Below is a link to the “Revive and Restore” project site. I’d be curious to know if anyone has strong feelings in favor of or against this project from an ethical standpoint.
It’s a lot more ambitious than that. They’re working to create a mammoth genome by editing the elephant genome. The phrase you use (and that they use on their website) understates what’s going on. Putting DNA into fibroblasts isn’t challenging or interesting. Editing a genome, on a large scale, is.
Our time and money is better spent on protecting what we have left. Whilst it would be cool to see Woolly Mammoths in the flesh, the truth is that they would likely die shortly after birth, much like the Pyrenean Ibex.
Thanks for pointing this out. I wasn’t mainly interested in discussing CRISPR-Cas9 but hearing opinions on the ethics of the project. Does “reanimation” to restore nature that we destroyed to potentially fill a valuable environmental role justify the use of resources? Or would resources be better spent in other ways to conserve threatened species?
Do you think that we should send an email to the group working on this saying it’s probably not gonna work anyway so you should quit now?
To be commercially viable, they need to miniaturize them so people can buy them for emotional support animals.
It’s an interesting question, but questions about how to spend resources are always hard to address in my experience. If the Church group were working with funds that had been earmarked for conservation/protection, then I guess we could say that they were displacing other efforts. But I don’t think that’s true. Plus, re the mammoths they have an argument that restoring this species will benefit ecosystems and therefore other species. I don’t know how strong that argument is. I do strongly agree that your question is an important one: if we discovered that we were doing less to conserve/protect as a result of some huge speculative effort to restore extinct species, then I’d be a lot less supportive of restoration.
To extrapolate from one outcome, of a different process in a different animal, to another, is dubious at best. To call it “the truth” is ridiculous.
Not that they’ve now decided to go along with it.
Church argues that it isn’t a zero sum game and wouldn’t divert funding from other conservation projects. Adam Welz says in the Guardian that “reanimation” projects could raise new money to support itself:
Resurrection biology efforts could quite realistically attract donors and investors who have never thought of being involved in wildlife conservation before, but are interested in the awesome novelty of bringing things back to life and the impressive (and perhaps impressively profitable) technology involved. They might even become interested in saving species the old-fashioned way, too.
At this point, I am inclined to favor the project based on the potential environmental benefits if successful. Since carbon emissions aren’t likely to be notably curtailed by humans in the immanent future, we need to be thinking outside the box about all possible alternative ways to protect the earth. In any case, as stated above, I don’t think they’re waiting on a consensus of approval to proceed from the BioLogos forum. I’ll continue following along the project with popcorn in hand.
It would be interesting to see the ecological effect, but it is hard to rewind the clock. What with climate changes, and the changes in soil and such, I doubt that roving herds of wooly mammoths would return the scrub brush to grasslands, but interesting to consider.
This sounds like they will produce an elephant with cold-weather adaptations rather than a true wooly mammoth. If funding is available, it seems like a good idea. We don’t seem to be reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our energy consumption, or use of fossil fuels.
Can you explain how an elephant with cold-weather adaptations is different from a “true” woolly mammoth?
Bringing back extinct animals is called de-extinction.
You weren’t here the last time BioLogos had this discussion, so I thought I’d point out
a very good lecture/debate on the topic held at the American Museum of Natural History. It had an outstanding panel of experts and was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. The debate is long but has real depth and is well worth watching.
Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard University and MIT
Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences, Stanford University
Scholar, The Hastings Center; Editor, Hastings Center Report
Curator, Department of Mammalogy, Division of Vertebrate Zoology; Professor, Richard Gilder Graduate School
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz
The altered DNA would be a combination of modern elephant and wooly mammoth DNA, but not exactly what actual mammoth DNA was. There are many difficult steps involved in making a clone, so it may be years before we see a walking, breathing mammoth.
I’d like mine in the 30-50 pound range, perhaps with a little poodle DNA to be sure it is hypoallergenic. If possible, please breed any urge to gore and trample out of my mammothpoo. Thank you.
The question was whether an elephant with cold adaptations (and other WM changes) is somehow clearly NOT a WM. You’re now answering with DNA but that’s an even less clear arena.
WM differs from elephants at 1.4 million sites, which is 0.4% of the genome. Some fraction of those differences are immaterial, just random differences. I don’t know that fraction, but I think a very conservative estimate is that the real differences are a million or less. Now, how much difference is there between any two woolly mammoths? Or any two elephants? I don’t know, but I know the difference between two humans has been estimated at around 20 million base pairs. (Roughly, 4-5 million sites differ at a single base pair, and 15 million more differ due to copy number variation or structural variation.) Even if we thought that was a little high and cut it by an order of magnitude, it would be 2 million sites.
So, when we change an elephant genome to look more like a WM genome, we’re moving two very closely related genomes even closer together. In my opinion, then, it is not scientifically meaningful to say whether and when the genome is a WM genome. And even more importantly, it is meaningless to say that an elephant with WM adaptations is not really a WM, without defining what it is you mean by a “true woolly mammoth.”
if a woolly mammoth is a cold-adapted elephant, then what would the Mammuthus be, the mammoth which lacked the long, coarse hair of the woolly mammoth?
(Pardon the expression, but this mammoth is very cool!)
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