Cells from Indian elephants part of an ambitious project to resurrect the woolly mammoth

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Cells from an elephant with Indian ancestry are part of a hugely ambitious project to resurrect the woolly mammoth or Mammuthus primigenius that went extinct some 10,000 years ago. Helming the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth is Harvard University genetics professor George Church, known for his pioneering work in genome sequencing and gene splicing.

Now supported by a funding of $15 million Dr. Church and his team are in the midst of genetically resurrecting the cold-resistant woolly mammoth as part of their efforts to rehabilitate the Arctic tundra. During a media call, Dr. Church was asked by indica News whether Indian elephants were involved in the project since they are genetically similar to the woolly mammoth. He said, “The cells of at least one of the elephants we are currently looking at is of Indian ancestry. We are always interested in getting new cells. We are open to any input from Indian parks or people that have experience with elephants as laborers. I can see some wonderful collaborations with the Indian people.”

He said the project has the ability to use a variety of Asian elephants which means they are not limited to any particular herd. “We can make a composite herd from all over the world. We already have multiple elephant cells,” he said.

Harvard geneticist George Church, right, and entrepreneur Ben Lamm, the co-founders of Colossal, a company that plans to resurrect the woolly mammoth. (Photo: www.colossal.com)

Dr. Church’s project, now under the tutelage of a company called Colossal, is quite reminiscent of the movie ‘Jurassic Park‘ in so much as it uses recovered DNA of a particular species long after its extinction to resurrect it into the modern world. The broad rationale for Dr. Church and his team is to combat climate change based on the idea that a species like the woolly mammoth’s return could refill the hole left behind by their extinction and in the process rehabilitate that ecosystem now under existential threat.

His method uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 in order to splice DNA bits recovered from frozen mammoth specimens into an Asian elephant, the nearest living creature. It is in this context that the cells of an Indian elephant could be useful to create a hybrid that has the features such as long hair needed as a protection against the Arctic cold. “It will walk like a woolly mammoth, look like one, sound like one, but most importantly it will be able to inhabit the same ecosystem previously abandoned by the Mammoth’s extinction,” the company says.

The overarching objective of Dr. Church’s project is to use this de-extinction technology to eventually revive many long-extinct species to restore ecological balance to Earth which environmental experts overwhelmingly agree is on the verge of a practically unreversible climate catastrophe caused by humans.

The company quotes scientists to say on average 30,000 species are driven to extinction every year which works out to be six every hour and 150 a day. That number could be as high as 55,000 a year. The World Animal Foundation has been quoted as saying 50% of all species could face extinction by 2050. With Earth’s ecological balance facing such extraordinary pressures, Dr. Church and his team believe their project could make a significant contribution.

Other experts who are skeptical about the Church team’s ability to mass-produce a version of the woolly mammoth point out among other concerns a total absence of bonding in the first generation of the proposed woolly mammoths. Bonding between offspring and parents is a key part of elephant populations. Since these woolly mammoths are essentially expected to be without that bonding their behavioral growth is considered problematic.

Dr. Church addressed that question from indica News as well. “We are very interested in the behavioral aspects. We are working with some behavioral experts, and we would love to have suggestions from others worldwide. They (woolly mammoths) are very closely related to Asian elephants. These will basically be Asian elephants. Some of the first generations could be reared in herds of Asian elephants. We hope to scale up all in parallel in the first generation. Some of them might get a limited time with Asian elephants but we will study other ways of doing it. There is a precedent for this in the California condor which is rewilded from essentially extinct in the wild by accelerating rearing by getting about four times the offspring using hand puppets. There are other precedents for mechanical surrogates for important social interactions.,” he said.

There is an of course a sizable body of scientists who is not in favor of bringing back the woolly mammoth. NPR had quoted one of them as far back as 2015. The radio station had quoted, Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, as saying, “I don’t want to see mammoths come back.”

“It’s never going to be possible to create a species that is 100% identical,” she said. “But what if we could use this technology not to bring back mammoths but to save elephants?”

However, with the first funding of $15 million in place the effort to resurrect the woolly mammoth is assertively underway with an aggressive timeline of it happening in less than a decade. Their main contention is that by reintroducing a particular extinct species in a particular ecosystem, in this case the cold-resistant mammoth in the Arctic tundra, they can plug a hole in that ecosystem and eventually help fight climate change.