Woolly Mammoth DNA Successfully In Elephant Cells

Reply Wed 25 Mar, 2015 01:32 pm
Woolly Mammoth DNA Successfully Spliced Into Elephant Cells

A group of researchers are getting closer to bringing the extinct woolly mammoth back to life. Geneticist George Church’s lab at Harvard University successfully copied genes from frozen woolly mammoths and pasted them into the genome of an Asian elephant.

Using a DNA editing tool called CRISPR, the scientists spliced genes for the mammoths’ small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells. The tissue cultures represent the first time woolly mammoth genes have been functional since the species went extinct around 4,000 years ago.

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal “because there is more work to do,” Church told the U.K.’s Sunday Times, “but we plan to do so.”

The work is part of an effort to bring extinct species back from the dead, a process called “de-extinction”. The recent breakthrough shows that one proposed de-extinction method--which involves splicing genes from extinct animals into the genomes of their living relatives--just might work. But don't believe the headlines suggesting woolly mammoth cloning is just around the corner. Church explained to Popular Science that there’s a lot more research to be done.

“Just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful,” says Church. “We want to read out the phenotypes.” To do that, the team needs to figure out how to take the flat hybrid cells from a petri dish and coax them into becoming specialized tissues--such as blood cells or liver organoids--then test to see if they behave properly. For example, do the mammoth hair genes lead to hair that's the right color, length, and woolliness?

If those tests go well, the team hopes to turn the elephant/mammoth skin cells into hybrid embryos that can be grown in artificial wombs, devices that allow for pregnancies outside of an animal's uterus. Artificial wombs are pretty speculative at this point, but the alternative--implanting the hybrids into the wombs of female elephants--is unsavory to animal rights activists as well as geneticists. “It’s going to be more humane and easier if we can set up hundreds of [embryos] in an incubator and run tests,” says Church.

If they can get the hybrid creatures to survive, the project's first goal will be to engineer an elephant that can survive in cold temperatures. The team thinks that expanding the elephant’s range into colder climates could help keep it away from humans and the conflicts that are threatening to make Asian and African elephants extinct. Later, after the engineered elephants gain a foothold, Church says the team will try to revive the mammoths by integrating higher amounts of mammoth DNA into the hybrids.

Of course, it's possible the mammoth genome will never be completely reconstructed, and the creatures will only remain elephant/mammoth hybrids. But if it looks like a mammoth and fulfills the same ecological functions as a mammoth, is it a mammoth? What even is a mammoth, anyway?
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Reply Wed 25 Mar, 2015 01:45 pm
I hope I live long enough to see a Woolly Mammoth (or even a hybrid that just looks like a Mammoth).
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Reply Wed 25 Mar, 2015 02:12 pm
Not everybody is in favour.

I’m a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and I live, sleep and dream mammoths. I doubt that there are many people in the world who would like to see a real-life woolly mammoth as much as I do. And yet I think cloning one would be ethically flawed.

Any attempt to clone a mammoth would probably require a living elephant – likely to be Asian – to act as a surrogate. To go through 22 months of pregnancy, carrying an animal of a completely different species as part of the experiment. An intelligent, social animal, at the brink of extinction, and one we know doesn’t do all that well in captivity.

And not just one elephant. In reality, many surrogates would be needed before a successful baby mammoth was born.

There are very good reasons for using animals in scientific research, but there are also strict ethical codes of practice that demand that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the suffering to the animals involved.

Does the potential benefit to humanity of cloning a mammoth outweigh the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother might experience? I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that it does.

So, why should we clone a mammoth? Because it would be cool to see one? That’s not going to cut it, I’m afraid.

Because it advances technology and the sum total of human knowledge? OK – but why a mammoth? Why not some other extinct creature that could be born of a surrogate better suited to life in captivity, or one that requires no animal surrogate at all? Church’s group are also trying to bring back the passenger pigeon, for example, and here it’s only the eggs that are manipulated in the lab. Granted, that’s not possible for mammals, but maybe a mouse would be a better starting point. For some reason, however, cloning an obscure species of extinct rodent doesn’t seem to capture the imagination.

Reply Wed 25 Mar, 2015 02:25 pm
Yeah. Scrat would be a better subject.
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