With the release of Jurassic World in a couple of months the idea of de-extinction will be brought back into the public consciousness. Since the original Jurassic Park, reintroducing the question of reviving lost species has been asked again and again. Indeed, if such a process existed it could potentially save the human race from becoming extinct. And now that popular Hollywood idea may be on the brink of coming to life.
Scientists in Russia and South Korea are collaborating on a project to clone a woolly mammoth through extracting a cell nucleus from frozen mammoth tissue. The genetic material will be inserted into an inoculated egg cell of an Asian elephant in a surrogate mother experiment. Such a method has proven successful with the 1996 cloning experiment of Dolly the sheep.
The challenges faced by the scientists are monumental. Finding a suitable mammoth cell nucleus in preserved tissue is a large enough concern, made harder by the actuality of a cloned embryo being compatible with the egg of another species. The oldest known frozen material used to create a cloned mammal are mice cells stored in laboratory fridges for 16 years.
RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
Still, the scientists are up to facing the obstacles. There has already been progress is extracting half of a mammoth genome from small DNA fragments trapped in ice, such as hair, skin, bone and teeth. There’s the option of making a hybrid elephant by splicing larger fragments of mammoth DNA into the chromosomes of an Asian elephant. Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, George Church said at de-extinction conference in Washington two years ago that “we’re preparing to make a hybrid elephant that would have the best features of modern elephants and the best features of mammoths.”
Since then Church has engineered a revolutionary ‘gene editing’ techniques called Crispr. The program has shown to work in elephant cells and carry out 14 changes in the genome. Church insists creating a hybrid elephant would mean the species could travel to far northern climates and be unharmed by the freezing temperatures. “If they could be readapted to places of minus 50C, where there is a low human density, they would stand a higher chance of survival.”
With the endangerment of many elephant species, the prospect of helping them survive is an appealing one.
Not everyone believes cloning a mammoth is possible. Evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Beth Shapiro points towards the massive technical difficulties. Despite having written a book called How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction she remains sceptical. Shapiro says the degradation of the DNA molecule over thousands of years makes it too hard for the animal to be cloned with current technology. “It’s a problem that probably won’t be solved without new and different biotechnology.”
She highlights a better method of preserving species. The new technology could be used in the form of genetic immunisation shots for endangered animals.
De-extinction is a compelling topic and headway will continue to be made to make it less of a fantasy and more of a reality. But would it be better to focus on trying to save living species rather than bring back animals who had their place in history? Only time will tell.
Do you think de-extinction is a possibility? What species would you want to bring back?