What would it be like to hunt a woolly mammoth? I’m not talking about going back in time. I’m talking about genetic engineering that could bring an extinct species back to life. At Harvard Medical School, there is an effort to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction by splicing genes from preserved mammoth cells with those of Asian elephants. A new technology, called the CRISPR system, uses an enzyme known as CAS9 to snip pieces of DNA and replace them with others. This could allow scientists to create an Asian elephant with greater cold tolerance. If that works, scientists could possibly add more genes and create a complete woolly mammoth. (See sources for the full article with more details.)
Why would we do that? Because we can? To see if we can? Some would like to see extinct species return to their ecosystems since we, intentionally or not, removed them and changed the way those systems worked. It follows that returning the species might set the system back to a better state. It’s even been proposed that returning woolly mammoths to the Siberian steppes might help sequester some of the CO2 that drives climate change.
In Alaska, there are people who argue that restoring mammoths to the North would be good for the ecosystem since they lived here during the last ice age and probably would not have gone extinct without human presence. Some would also argue we should place tigers or saber-tooth cats in the north, since they lived alongside the mammoths. Yellowstone showed us that we have difficulty restoring ecosystems without restoring predators. Before wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park the elk tended to live near rivers, damaging the vegetation and stream quality. When wolves were re-introduced, they caused the elk to migrate more and the plants that were overgrazed near streams bounced back and reduced river bank erosion.
If we un-extincted woolly mammoths, would we need to introduce a predator large enough to keep them moving? Saber-tooth cats might be a good candidate, and I’m sure humans would line up to hunt both, but do we want them back? We have bears and wolves in Alaska, but they usually avoid people and cities. In the West where I grew up there are cougars, they also have a tendency to avoid population centers, but there has been a rise in urban cougars lately. I’m not talking about older ladies hitting on younger men, but cougars that come into communities and prey on deer and pets, and sometimes, people. (Read The Beast in the Garden by David Baron) Would saber-tooth cats be more willing to come into our backyards than wolves or bears? There are moose that wander near our houses, especially during the winter, would those draw in the big cats if we brought them back? (They were one of the smaller creatures of the Pleistocene after all.)
Yet even if we could resurrect woolly mammoths and saber-tooth cats without major danger to the cities of the North, would it be a good idea? Since the mammoths have been gone, evolution of the plants and animals in these ecosystems has continued, so how would re-introduction effect them? Would we bring back the plains bison too, or just the well-known woolly? When we talk about restoring ecosystems, can we all agree on the place and time to restore them to?
Given how much a modern elephant differs from a mammoth, scientists are not sure they will be able to change all the genes of an elephant to re-create a woolly mammoth, but the technology could help save some species, like cheetahs, from going extinct. In “gene puddles” it is possible that CRSPR technology could insert genes from dead individuals back into the living population to restore a “gene pool.” If nothing else, practicing getting genes into elephants might help us better get genes into people using CRISPR technology, which may become an element in my book series. In the meantime, it might become a debate in the comments section…
Fact or Fiction?: Mammoths Can Be Brought Back from Extinction