RIT professor on $15M effort to resurrect the wooly mammoth by Harvard scientists

Science

(FILES) A file picture taken on March 7, 2011, shows a man touching a giant bronze sculpture of a mammoth in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk. An international team of Russia’s and South Korea’s scientists have discovered well-preserved frozen woolly mammoth fragments that may contain living cells, that could allow the cloning the prehistoric animal, the team representative told AFP today. AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages)

HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — A company and project called “Colossal” has received $15 million dollars in funding, according to CNN, to do one thing with a big goal: Resurrect the woolly mammoth.

The project hopes that the reintroduction of the animal that has been extinct for more than 4,000 years can reform the Artic, tundra, and the Steppes to help combat climate change.

Colossal’s website has this to offer: It is a science that has been developed and mastered by George Church, Ph.D. and his lab. With a 99.6% genetic match in the Asian elephant, intact Mammoth DNA, and modern genetic engineering, the task is well underway.

This comes on the heels of a full genetic sequence taken from a discovered mammoth fossil, and the project says that they can use CRISPR technology to essentially pick which genes were present in the mammoth and then splice them into the Asian elephant genome.

“Our goal is to have our first calves in the next four to six years,” said tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm, a backer of Colossal also said to CNN.

To offer some perspective and insight on this project, Robert Rothman, RIT Professor Emeritus of Life Sciences — who is both familiar with the project and the technology used in this project — discussed with News 8 his reaction to the feasibility of the project, its mission, practicality, the amount of funding, and more.

To get funding quickly out of the way:

“I would say seems pretty slim, right?” he said. “Just to sequence it and and the cloning is probably going to require a lot of manpower… I would guess that’s barely scratching the surface of what it would cost.”

And as for the mission itself, Rothman gives an overview for us.

“It’s an idea called rewilding,” Rothman said. “The goal is to replace a missing keystone organism… to re-introduce a modern population — [and] if that’s not possible — to introduce either a closely related species or a species that fills a similar ecological niche.”

Rothman equates it to the re-introduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone Park — animals that were there, but the project increased the number — or in his area of expertise, tortoises on the Galapagos. While both of these projects invovled extant, rather than extinct, animals, Rothman draws parallels to the captive breeding programs, as well as their timelines and difficulty.

He discusses the Espanola tortoise, which at one point only had 15 remaining animals. They were all brought back to a station in 1971, and over 30 years later, the population he says is over 2,000. But that was a decades-long process, unlike the 4-5 timeline the Colossal project laid out.

“So that’s kind of the comparison that I look at now, if you put this in the context of the elephants, it takes about two years for a fertilized egg to mature into a baby elephant,” Rothman said.

He credits the Colossal team for being well-researched and having exceptional ability to do the actual gene splicing work with CRISPR, but says that birthing these mammoth-esque animals has other complications, namely how the animal will develop, specifically how it will be rasied and socialized.

If it’s born in a tube, how will it grow up and socialize? If the fertilized egg with the mammoth analogue, would the Asian elephant be willing to raise its “alien” offspring? Rothman says there’s no way to answer these questions until the project begins.

He also adds that in the case of the tortoises, since they were a product of the captive breeding program — and thanks to an industrious tortoise named Diego, who according to the Galapagos National Parks may have sired around 40% of the new population — the current population is fairly homogenous, and may lead to inbreeding issues down the line.

As for the overall goal itself, Rothman has his doubts. While he cited two examples that have worked, rewilding doesn’t always work, saying that often solutions to one problem create others.

“The classic example are cane toads in Australia,” he said. “I think it’s a huge problem… (They) were introduced about a hundred years ago… to deal with pest insect pests that attacking sugar cane, but the frog population exploded. And they’re poisonous. If you touch them, I think you you get a bad reaction, but if a dog (eats) one (it can get) sick or die.”

But with these examples, these creatures are extant; they currently exist on Earth, and are moved someplace else, or their numbers are increased. In this case… The woolly mammoth has not trundled across the Steppes in 4,000 years. Rothman says mammoths aren’t around for a reason, saying that they were animals who thrived in cold weather, and with a warming planet, their odds of survival don’t intuitively feel promising.

Finally, Rothman addresses the ethical concerns of recreating species, and extensively editing the genes of current ones. He points out that some say that this technology is so powerful that it could be possibly be used to help current elephants populations, but instead being used to recreate old ones. He does add one more philosophical concern of many:

“‘We shouldn’t play God,'” he said, echoing those concerns.

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