Attempts to Revive Wooly Mammoths Could Provide the Answer to Earth's Extinction Crisis

Wednesday, 17 June 2015 - 6:24PM
Weird Science
Genetic Engineering
Wednesday, 17 June 2015 - 6:24PM
Attempts to Revive Wooly Mammoths Could Provide the Answer to Earth's Extinction Crisis
We're all familiar with the premise of the Jurassic Park franchise; a scientists clones dinosaurs and brings them back to modern day reality for the purposes of opening a theme park. Sounds like something straight out of the science-fiction handbook. But, as it turns out, reviving extinct species is not only possible - it's actually something that could help the ecosystem. Of course, cloning dinosaurs is out of the picture, but evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro believes that new genetic engineering technologies - similar to the gene splicing tech seen in the likes of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World - could benefit critical ecosystems. Her new book, "How To Clone a Mammoth" focuses on the very real attempts to revive the DNA of the Wooly Mammoth. 

Shapiro makes it perfectly clear that, despite the catchy title of her new book, cloning a long-existing species is impossible, because the process would require a living cell. Rather, mammoth traits could be engineered into their closest living relative, the Asian Elephant. Shapiro notes that this wouldn't create something that was a mammoth, "Being exposed to the hormones of an elephant mom, if we're a developing mammoth embryo, or being fed an elephant diet, or being raised by elephants is going to affect the expression of our DNA. For this reason and for ethical reasons, technical reasons, and ecological reasons, probably the best use of this type of technology is not to attempt to resurrect something that's gone, but to try and revive and revitalize ecosystems that exist today." 

Shapiro goes on to explain that the aforementioned Asian Elephants are endangered, and this same technology can be used to help expand the range of potential habitats they can survive in, because woolly mammoths are genetically programmed to live in cold climates. This could give environmentalists more times to figure out how to protect the elephants in their natural habitat, and potentially save them from extinction. "The priority of this technology isn't in anybody's mind to bring an extinct species back to life. It's to save species and ecosystems that are alive today from becoming extinct."

Though there has been some backlash, namely over the potential for unintended consequences to the ecosystem and the loss of support for traditional conservation efforts, Shapiro does her best to rebut these oppositions in her interview with Yale e360."We are in the midst of an extinction crisis. We have tools at our fingertips that we could use to try and stop the mass extinction event that's underway right now, but what we're doing is not enough. My argument is that we need new approaches, we need new weapons in this arsenal we have."

Shapiro hopes that this technology will be used to help currently endangered species grow and thrive, and not for de-extinction purposes. I guess that means we won't be seeing any dinosaurs - or woolly mammoths for that matter- anytime soon. But, what it could mean, is that species like the Asian Elephant would have a new lease on life, all thanks to their prehistoric cousin.
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