Woolly mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years, but they could roam the Arctic tundra in as few as seven, thanks to the breakneck pace of modern genetic science that has some experts warning the so-called de-extinction technology could herald a real-life Jurassic Park disaster.
Alex Moehrenschlager of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says science is outpacing important ethical and ecological debates about the implications of reviving animal species like sabretooth tigers, dodos and maybe even dinosaurs.
“The risks are unbelievable,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday. “We don’t know what the exact ecological effects would be. We don’t know if they will be disease-transmitters or dangerous, perhaps, to people.”
Efforts to bring the woolly mammoth species back from the dead are already well underway. Scientists are using the modern-day Asian elephant as a template, injecting living elephant embryos with genetic information from their extinct ancestors to create a living animal with near-identical DNA.
An international group of scientists led by Harvard geneticist Dr. George Church has sequenced the genetic roadmap to change an Asian elephant’s chromosome to possess the mammoth-like ability to survive in cold regions. The technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, enables genetic editing by essentially cutting and pasting sequences of DNA code.
So far, Church’s team has edited 15 genes required to recreate the copies of the creature, and are currently working to complete the 30 outstanding genetic components.
Another team in Siberia believes an almost perfectly preserved carcass of a young female mammoth nicknamed “Yuka,” found in the Arctic Circle in 2010, could be used to clone the prehistoric beasts.
Moehrenschlager says the creation of such a “proxy” animal needs to be approached with great caution.
As Jeff Goldblum’s character in the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster “Jurassic Park” warned, “This isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation or the building of a dam.”
“When we first heard about Jurassic Park we thought it was a great story. That story is sort of coming to reality,” said Moehrenschlager.
As a general rule, the further you dig into the past to resurrect an animal, the more question marks arise about how it will interact with existing biodiversity. The reality is, nobody is entirely sure what to expect if woolly mammoths roam the tundra again for the first time in thousands of years.
Some even say the benefits could extend beyond the scientific triumph.
“Some people are arguing that having mammoths back in the Arctic would replace some ecological function that has been lost,” said Moehrenschlager. “Perhaps it would even help in terms of mitigating climate change.”
A theory put forward by Dr. Church suggests the presence of “cold resident elephants or mammoths” could help grass start to grow in the region and slow the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.
Moehrenschlager says a set of guidelines from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released last summer, will help researchers better understand the ethical, ecological, and even legal consequences of restoring extinct animal life, and address the critical question of whether it should be done in the first place.
“It’s a tricky game. There is a lot of potential. There is a lot of love with the technological feasibility,” he said. “But I think we need to think harder and ask the difficult questions.”