Harvard-led woolly mammoth de-extinction project gets closer to reality

The woolly mammoth is long extinct, but it’s beginning to look like they might make a comeback — or a comeback of sorts — as a hybrid elephant genetically edited to display many mammoth traits. A team of Harvard researchers presented their progress in making this happen at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s yearly meeting this week, and, according to team leader Professor George Church, they’re closer than you might’ve believed.

You’ve probably heard about efforts to bring back the woolly mammoth, the last of which went extinct around 4,000 years ago. It’s a popular exemplar used when discussing how far we’ve come with gene editing. Church’s team really is using the CRISPR Cas-9 gene editing technology to combine into the elephant genome genes for mammoth traits, including long hair, a layer of fat under the skin and other cold-weather hardiness features.

The researchers are only “a couple of years” away from getting to a place where they can make an embryo for their mammoth-like elephant, per The Guardian, which would actually be something new, rather than a resurrected woolly mammoth in the way you might expect given popular depictions of extinct species’ resurrection in popular culture.

An embryo is not a fully grown animal, however, and it’ll be some time more before we get there. The team says it’ll be “many years” before they arrive at any kind of effort to create a real, living, breathing animal that you could go see in the engineered flesh. The current focus is on seeing what the effect of the edits are on the organism at increasingly complex stages of its development: first, the team was experimenting on cells, and now they’re moving on to embryos.

Interestingly, the team suggests their work has a number of potential upsides in terms of helping to preserve the Asian elephant, which is on the endangered species list. It also could help alleviate some global warming concerns, the researchers suggest, by preventing tundra from melting by effectively aerating the permafrost with their steps.

Of course, critics suggest that the project is fraught with ethical concerns, including what it means to resurrect a social species, and whether efforts might be better spent on preservation of species we know are put in danger as a direct result of human interference, rather than an animal that lived so long ago.

The project is scientifically incredibly interesting, however, and it’s unlikely to halt its progress now, ethical concerns notwithstanding.