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Can we bring back the woolly mammoth?

The team of scientists led by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, will use genetic engineering to develop a cold-hardy elephant or an “Arctic elephant”. Several news articles pointed out that the company had received initial funding of $ 15 million.

The team selected more than 50 traits that will improve the cold hardiness of an Asian elephant. These include shaggy coats, smaller ears, cold-adapted forms of hemoglobin, and excessive production of fatty tissue.

The idea is to use these genes and, using CRISPR technology, insert them into the genome of the Asian elephant. The team will then create an embryo that bears the features of a woolly mammoth.

The embryo will be implanted in a surrogate African elephant. Pregnancy in the elephant’s womb will take place for approximately 18 to 22 months and an “arctic elephant” hybrid will be born.

But why a woolly mammoth and why now?

Colossal mentions on its website that one of the main goals for reviving the mammoth is to turn the now scrub forests into natural arctic grasslands, which will help reduce carbon emissions.

The tundra, which is now a mossy forest, was once a prairie, and the team said bringing back the mammoths could help bring back the steppe ecosystem (unforested grasslands) and help “reverse the rapid warming of the climate.” .

They said the mammoth grazing would help restore the grassland ecosystem and prevent the thawing and release of greenhouse gases that are now trapped in the arctic permafrost.

Dr George Church told IndianExpress.com that for carbon sequestration – preventing methane from being released and bringing new carbon dioxide into the frozen ground – models have shown that about 100 “Arctic elephants Would be necessary.

“We would need an area of ​​between one and three million square kilometers in the beginning to have an impact. But given that there are about 20 million square kilometers of the Arctic, that’s a small fraction, ”he added.

When will an “Arctic elephant” be born?

Ben Lamm, founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences, told reporters that the first generation of “Arctic elephant” calves can be seen in four to six years. “Our goal is a little over a decade before we have a full reintroduction,” he added.

Lamm said the short-term plan includes the development of veterinary reproductive technologies for endangered species in particular, and for endangered environments and ecosystems.

“Look at it like the Apollo program. When humanity went to the moon, we actually developed a lot of great technologies, including technologies that allow us to have this conversation today. And so we think there are a lot of applications of the technologies that will come out of these synthetic wombs, the multiplex edition that can be used to protect critically endangered species, in agriculture and for veterinary use ” , he added.

Ethical issues

Professor Adrian M Lister of the Division of Vertebrates and Anthropology at the Natural History Museum in London told IndianExpress.com that this plan raises many ethical questions: “Especially since we are talking about a very social animal. intelligent, and not from a laboratory animal like a fruit. fly or nematode worm.

He added that it was highly likely that there would be many failed experiences (abortions or ill-formed births) before they could have a successful pregnancy and functioning offspring.

“Second, do we really know enough about the adaptations of the elephant to be sure that we can fully equip it for life in the Arctic? It is a tropical animal that lives in equatorial daylight and in a climatic regime, eating tropical trees and tall grasses. They may be able to create a thick layer and a fat layer, for example, but there may be many other necessary physiological or biochemical adaptations that we are not aware of. Will these animals thrive in such a foreign environment? He asked.


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