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The Church lab at Harvard University recently announced plans to create a hybrid mammoth and elephant. Using a technology called CRISPR, researchers in the Church lab have learned how to insert mammoth DNA into the cells of modern elephants. Theoretically, this could set the stage for developing an embryo with DNA from both a modern elephant and the woolly mammoth. The group would like to place the embryo in an artificial womb to develop instead of using a modern elephant as a surrogate.

This research has raised both practical and ethical concerns. Bridget Alex, a fellow in Harvard’s department of Evolutionary Biology, points out that mouse embryos have been developed in artificial wombs for the first ten days of their development, a small fraction of a mouse’s full gestational period. The researchers would have to successfully insert the mammoth-elephant DNA into an elephant embryo and bring that embryo to full term, a task that is likely to prove much more difficult in an elephant than it would in a mouse.

Ethical implications of partially resurrecting an extinct species are plentiful. The Church lab says the hybrids could help preserve the endangered Asian elephant and protect land threatened by permafrost loss. Critics, on the other hand, argue that we cannot know the impact of a hybrid on existing elephant groups. Furthermore, woolly mammoths are social animals, and there is concern as to how the hybrid would be accepted by its fully elephant family. Ethicists argue that because cloning an extinct species is wildly expensive and has unknown conservation benefits, such projects should not siphon funds that could otherwise go to existing conservation programs.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Bridget Alex a fellow in Harvard’s department of Evolutionary Biology for providing advice and commentary on this article

Managing Correspondent: Emily Kerr

Original Article: Should we bring extinct species back from the dead

Media Coverage: Woolly Mammoth Could Be ‘De-Extinct’ In 2 Years, Scientist Says

 

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