Image: Tracy O, Wikimedia Commons

Scientists may now have the capacity to recreate the woolly mammoth using advancements in genetic engineering — an astounding realization that could have positive ramifications on the receding tundra and warming ecosystem.

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primignius) first walked the earth over 400,000 years ago but survived longer than most of its neighboring mammal relatives, with a small pocket of the gigantic animals persisting on Wrangel Island in the Arctic realm up until about 4,000 years ago.     

Their bodies were well-preserved in frozen permafrost, attributing to an uncanny capacity for physical scientific study. The degradation of DNA due to elemental exposure is undeniably problematic but hope remains in the fragments that have been recovered — coupled with the unique capacity of the gene editing mechanism called CRISPR that has recently taken the scientific world by storm. 

The Asian elephant is the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative and an insertion of these retained genes into elephant DNA could result in the creation of a mammoth-elephant hybrid. The idea has been dubbed the ‘de-extinction experiment’ and although not yet formally recognized in any scientific journal, researchers are far on their way to success.

Image: James Atmos, Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR has enabled scientists to remove certain strands of Asian elephant DNA and insert 45 different mammoth genes, coding for features such as a shaggy hair coat, subcutaneous fat, and cold-adapted blood.  They have successfully progressed from the cell to the embryo stage and are now working on growing live animals ex-vitro within an artificial womb.

The goals of this project include helping restore the population of the endangered Asian elephant in a way that would also combat climate change by rebirthing important characteristics of the woolly mammoth on earth. Mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. 

“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in. In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow,” Professor George Church reported to the Guardian.

(Read more about the woolly mammoth)