JERSEY CITY, NJ – Woolly mammoths have been extinct for more than 4,000 years, but with new gene-editing techniques they could help mitigate the effects of a modern problem: climate change.
Most of the hype so far has focused on bringing these shaggy animals back to life with their permafrost-conserved DNA. But this time, scientists are not targeting a "Jurassic Park" scenario – they are not trying to bring whole mammoths back exactly as they did in the last ice age. Rather, they hope to mix some of the mammoth mammoth genes with those of today's Asian elephants ( Elephas maximus ) to increase elephant tolerance to the cold, said George Church, a Harvard and MIT geneticist. Leading the Harvard Mammal Revival Team
"I do not think it's even desirable" to bring the whole mammoth back, Church said Friday, May 11, here at the Liberty Science Center Genius Gala 2018. He believes that a few old genes will do more by increasing the chances of survival of the threatened elephant, which could then be reintroduced in the northern parts of the world. Once there, the genetically modified elephants would overturn trees that keep the area warm in winter, restoring a more climate-friendly ecosystem.
When mammoths roamed a northern area known as the "Mammoth Steppe", this ecosystem was rich in grasses. But after the woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius ) had died out and other grasses left the area, grasses gave way to shrubs and a tundra ecosystem, an environment that the Harvard Mammal Revival team called "contributing to human powered by the Climate change. "
" The elephants who lived in the past – and possibly elephants in the future – have overturned trees and dropped the cold air on the ground and kept the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect sunlight in summer, "Church said. "These two combined [factors] could result in a tremendous cooling of the soil and a rich ecosystem."
In the absence of large creatures that cut down trees and trample the snow, the opposite happens, Church says, as tall trees and a fluffy blanket of snow keep the permafrost warm in the winter months.
"Fluffy snow is like a comforter that keeps the warm summer floor away from the winter winds of -40 degrees," Church said. "Trees absorb light and heat in summer and keep cold winds out in winter."
At warmer temperatures, this leads to the melting of permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases such as methane, Church said. According to the International Energy Agency, 1,400 gigatons of carbon – equivalent to 43 times more carbon than fossil fuels and the industry that was produced last year – are at risk of escaping into the atmosphere when permafrost melts, he added . The elephants on our planet can not bear the cold climate of the steppe now. So the idea is to use gene editing techniques like CRISPR to put mammoths' old robust genes into Asian elephant cells and create embryos that can grow into elephant mammoth hybrids.
"It could only be 44 genes [that] could be enough to adapt it to the cold again," said Church. He hopes to introduce a few more that could help the elephant in other ways as well – such as genes that could allow them to eat certain toxins to increase the breadth of vegetation, or genes that reduce their size so they can less are
Due to the ethical concerns of implanting the embryos in elephants, the scientists hope to be able to breed the mammoth elephant hybrids in the laboratory. But whether that's possible is yet to be determined, Church said. First, the researchers will try to grow mice from mouse embryos in the laboratory. So far, according to an earlier live science report, they have introduced some mammalian genes into elephant cells in the lab, for example, for more hair growth or fat production.
Of course, many questions remain unanswered. For example, how would these genes interact with other genes? Would the embryos survive in the laboratory environment? How would these massive hybrids affect today's ecosystems, and would they change them? Of course, there are also ethical considerations: even if people can manipulate the ecosystem, should they?
Originally published on Live Science .