Researchers at Harvard University believe they are two years away from bringing back the woolly mammoth, according to a recent statement at the world’s biggest science conference in Boston.
While scientists have been trying to bring back the extinct beasts for years, most attempts have been purely theoretical. This is the first large step towards putting the idea into practice.
To do this, the team plans to use new gene-editing techniques to blend woolly mammoth genes with the embryo of an Asian elephant. While this will lead to a hybrid rather than a pure breed, it will give the elephant many distinct mammoth traits, including shaggy long hair, thick layers of fat, and cold-adapted blood.
Researchers have already made 45 mammoth-liked edits in the Asian elephant genome. They hope this will help them develop an embryo that they can take to full-term.
“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits,” said team leader George Church, a professor at Harvard University, according to New Scientist. “The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments. We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair, and blood.”
Once the edits are done, the team would work to develop a hybrid embryo. While this would just be an elephant embryo carrying mammoth genetic traits, the process could help scientists create a full mammoth within the next few years.
This will not be easy. Cloning is a difficult process and becomes even harder when trying to bring back a species that has been extinct for 4,000 years. In addition, Asian elephants are an endangered species. As a result, the team believes it would be unethical to use living animals as surrogates. This could delay the process as the team works on possible alternatives. Researchers would one day like to develop specimens in a lab with no surrogates at all, but such technology does not yet exist.
“We hope to do the entire procedure ex-vivo (outside a living body). It would be unreasonable to put female reproduction at risk in an endangered species,” Church added, according to Mirror UK. “We’re testing the growth of mice ex-vivo. There are experiments in the literature from the 1980s but there hasn’t been much interest for a while. Today we’ve got a whole new set of technology and we’re taking a fresh look at it.”